Restocking the Pantry
Photos by Tessa Berg
At the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, food donations are no longer synonymous with canned goods as its shelves are stocked with more fresh produce than ever before. It’s an exciting shift, officials say, but one that presents a new wave of challenges.
It’s the start of the work day at the Mid-Ohio Foodbank and the warehouse, big enough to hold nearly four football fields, hums with activity. Refrigerated tractor trailers back into loading docks. A PA system squawks morning announcements. Forklifts roam long aisles moving food for delivery to the Foodbank’s network of more than 550 food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters across Central and Eastern Ohio.
What’s striking isn’t the volume of food being moved, but the type. Pallets of cabbages, potatoes, apples, bananas, tomatoes and oranges fill space vacated the previous day by large deliveries of lettuce and sweet potatoes. A sign on a walk-in cooler boasts its contents: berries, cantaloupe, carrots, cauliflower, corn and grapes. On the nearby cold dock, bananas, squash, tomatoes and green beans await shipment.
Around the corner, Mid-Ohio’s grocery store-like test pantry—a sort of laboratory for food pantries of the future open thrice weekly to those in need—overflows with oranges, apples, green and yellow zucchini and numerous other fruits and vegetables.
Here, food bank staff study the best way to present produce and explain its benefits to clients. It’s information to be passed on to food pantries around the state as produce begins to overshadow items once synonymous with “food bank”: canned goods, pasta and peanut butter.
Food banks are no longer just the realm of shelf-stable goods, and nowhere is this trend as clear as at the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, where more than half the supplies now consist of produce and other fresh items. This shift is the future of food banking, says Mid-Ohio president and CEO Matt Habash.
“Our core business is capturing surplus food and getting it to people that are hungry,” Habash says as he walks the aisles of the Grove City facility, greeting employees and examining shipments. “The good news now is that the food that really is readily available is produce.”
The abundance of produce on food pantry shelves mirrors Americans’ own newfound preference for fresh fruits and vegetables. This growing demand means more production of these foods, but it can also threaten an increase in waste as expiration dates of fresh items approach more rapidly than their canned cousins.
It’s a trend of opportunity for food banks like Mid-Ohio to partner with farmers and local and national grocery stores for donations. The produce is out there, Habash says. What needs to change are the logistics of collecting. That’s why this spring, the Foodbank—part of a network that secures and delivers fresh foods to pantries across the country—will wrap up its Harvest Campaign. It’s a first-ever $1 million campaign to boost fresh food offerings and prepare the Foodbank for a new set of challenges that supplying fresh produce presents—ensuring pantries have sufficient equipment to keep food, such as coolers, and educating visitors on what to do with the fresh items once they get home.
Statistics tell the story of the recent fresh food revolution. By 2000, canning industry production fell by more than 25 percent from its mid-1970s heyday. Meanwhile, grocery stores developed systems to ship more and more fresh food faster than ever.
In response, Feeding America, the national agency that oversees the country’s roughly 200 major food banks, including Mid-Ohio, began to develop and coordinate food rescue programs focusing on the increasing amount of fresh produce available.
Food banks in the network acquire food on a source-to-excess basis—finding as much fresh food as they can, then sharing with other food banks around the country. Feeding America has increased its produce distribution from about 360 million pounds in 2008 to about 549 million pounds last year.
“It really is a case of us all working together with each other,” Habash says. “If any one donor has more that we can use, we share it.”
In Columbus, for example, Mid-Ohio might take some of the donations it receives from local Big Lots, Kraft Food or Kellogg distributors and ship those across Ohio.
Today, the Feeding America network of food banks is the country’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, helping feed about 37 million Americans annually. As the number of people relying on food pantries has grown, the agencies serving these clients were challenged both to find enough food at a time when traditional pantry items like canned goods were declining and to make sure the food they provided was healthy.
“As America has changed the way it eats and grocery stores have changed the kind of inventory they carry, it means different streams of food are available to us,” says Ross Fraser, a Feeding America spokesman.
Habash—chairman of Mount Carmel Health System’s board of trustees and husband of Ohio State’s bionutrition clinical research manager Diane Habash—is focused on these connections between health and unreliable access to food. The Mid-Ohio Foodbank is one of three food banks implementing a nationwide three-year diabetes study looking for ways to help improve the health of food-insecure people. Habash’s goal is for the Foodbank to become a major distributor of healthy food in poor communities where people struggle with conditions like diabetes and hypertension.
It’s a familiar story around the country. In California, the San Francisco Food Bank has a “Field to Family” program in which surplus food is purchased directly from farmers. At Second Harvest Heartland in St. Paul, Minnesota, serving the Twin Cities, the agency collected 33 percent more fresh food in 2012 than the prior year. In Philadelphia, produce represents a third of the food coming through the doors of the Philabundance food bank.
The Mid-Ohio Foodbank distributed more than 16 million pounds of fresh produce last year, a 71 percent increase since 2011. “There began a social and donor pressure to improve the quality of food that donors provide to their client base,” says Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance.
Food banks are more integrated than ever with the food distribution process as markets tighten and agencies make decisions about what kind of food they need and where they’re going to get it from, Clark says. “So the whole food bank world is shifting from being just distributors to being acquirers of the product much more strategically,” Clark explains. “And it’s much easier to do that with agricultural commodities than it is to do with highly processed foods.”
Two years ago the Mid-Ohio Foodbank hosted a national summit of more than 250 food bank officials, farmers, retailers, distributors, transportation companies and others to trade ideas and best practices for acquiring and distributing fresh produce. Feeding America also asked Habash, as a longtime national leader in food bank issues, to lead a countrywide effort to procure an additional billion pounds of fresh produce that ultimately would be shared by many food banks. The summit led to an outpouring of ideas that food banks nationally are working on, including a pilot program in Georgia that lets farmers electronically alert the nearest food bank of produce availability.
Locally, the summit helped Mid-Ohio to expand the way its food is distributed: Last year, working with 49 partner groups around the state, it served more than 28,000 households and distributed 2.1 million pounds of fresh food (the equivalent of 420,000 5-pound sacks of potatoes). Mid-Ohio also expanded its sharing of food within the region, including other food banks in Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
“In our system now, a bag of apples is cheaper than a can of applesauce,” says Habash, who has overseen the food bank since 1984. “To give somebody meat, potatoes and carrots and now teach Crock-Pot cooking is cheaper than my old model, which was, ‘Go buy tuna fish and Tuna Helper.’ ”
In September, Mid-Ohio Foodbank launched its own effort, the Harvest Campaign, to increase the amount of fresh produce it acquires and distributes. The campaign set a goal of raising $1 million toward distributing another 5 or 6 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, with 100 percent of the money going toward the effort.
The Harvest Campaign underscores a point that’s sometimes lost on outsiders when they think about charitable food giving. Although most of the food the agency receives is donated, it still comes with a cost: what’s called the “picking and packing” expenses of paying farmers to get the food out of their fields, followed by the transportation costs of moving the produce. Getting a semi-truck load of lettuce from California to Grove City, for example, can cost the Foodbank $5,000. With around 2,400 donors so far, the Harvest Campaign has raised close to $600,000. The drive and the overall expansion of fresh produce offerings came at a time when federal budget cuts were reducing the amount of federal commodities, from potatoes to beef to cranberry sauce, once available to food banks.
“We had to put additional cash resources to the sourcing of food because it wasn’t just showing up like it used to,” says Greg Winslow, Mid-Ohio’s development director. “We launched the campaign to let the community know that this was a need that we had—and an opportunity that we had.” The campaign, separate from the Foodbank’s annual Operation Feed fundraiser that kicks off this month, wraps up around the end of June.
On a cold morning in January, 36-year-old Shakara Montgomery is one of dozens of clients on a monthly shopping visit to the food pantry at Broad Street Presbyterian Church just east of downtown. A volunteer guides this single mother of five children, ages 2 to 11, past both canned and fresh offerings.
Montgomery is looking for food to supplement her supplies at home. Fruit of any kind is high on her list because her kids like it and she sees it as a healthy alternative.
“When I don’t have food, that’s something I want them to eat instead of just snacks,” Montgomery says. There’s plenty for her to choose from. The pantry’s produce offerings doubled last year: the most popular items include apples, oranges, tomatoes, lettuce and collard greens. But it’s not uncommon to find more diverse offerings, including grapefruit, pomegranates and Brussels sprouts, depending on availability. The pantry has two coolers and three freezers and plans to expand to four coolers and four freezers this spring.
“A lot of it is education,” says pantry director Kathy Kelly-Long. “Because obviously the first time you pick up something like an avocado or papaya or a mango, you kind of look at it and go, ‘What do I do with this?’ ”
Local food banks like Mid-Ohio can find only so much food locally—bulk quantities of lettuce in winter just aren’t possible in Ohio—which makes the national food bank distribution system so valuable and so much easier thanks to technological changes at the country’s biggest grocery stores. A giant retailer like Wal-Mart, for example, has created a system in which food that reaches its sell-by date—not the same as an expiration date—is donated to food banks that assume the cost of picking it up and transporting it. That means equipment like a full-size refrigerated truck to ship the donated goods has become a big expense for today’s food banks. Wal-Mart estimates that 5.5 million pounds of food, nearly half the total amount it donated to Ohio food banks last year, was fresh produce.
Or take Cincinnati-based Kroger, which since 2011 has been experimenting with the best way to flash-freeze items like meat that can’t be sold but are still available for food banks. At Kroger’s distribution center in Delaware, employees check the expiration dates on shipments of fruits and vegetables. Any short-dated products are put on a truck and sent directly to the Mid-Ohio Foodbank. The company has donated 1.2 million pounds of food to 11 food banks around Ohio, including Mid-Ohio and facilities in Cleveland and Toledo. “Our number-one thing at Kroger is combatting hunger and this is an easy and logical way to do it,” spokeswoman Jackie Siekmann says.
The Mid-Ohio Foodbank also gets a lot of its produce through the state’s agricultural clearance program, which receives produce from a variety of farmers around the region, including Lynd’s Fruit Farm in Pataskala. Another local source for the food bank is Sanfillipo Produce on East Fifth Avenue. It’s not uncommon for the Foodbank to call on the company when it’s looking to acquire large amounts of produce—quantities of a dozen or more wooden pallets of food, says company president Jim Sanfillipo.
A fourth-generation member of his family to run the business founded in 1899, Sanfillipo says the Mid-Ohio Foodbank partnership grew out of his desire to find something to do with food they couldn’t sell. His parents had grown up in the Depression and drummed into him the value of saving as much as possible.
“One day I said, ‘We’ve got to find somebody who can eat this product rather than it be thrown away,’ ” Sanfillipo says.
Other fresh food supporters don’t have a direct connection to produce but believe strongly in the concept. Through its foundation, Safelite AutoGlass provided a $25,000 grant for Mid-Ohio to acquire 125,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Food is one of the most basic human needs, and consistent access to nutritious foods like fresh fruits and vegetables is essential for good health,” says Safelite vice president Jon Cardi, who also sits on the Mid-Ohio Foodbank board.
The Harvest Campaign, while focused on fresh food, is part of a larger conversation the Foodbank is having as it works on ways to essentially put itself out of business. That means getting involved in efforts to make sure Central and Eastern Ohio—Mid-Ohio’s service area—are places where people have adequate education, jobs and incomes that allow them to feed themselves and their families. The goal is moving from a “food-in, food-out” philosophy to an overarching approach to ending hunger.
“The question we’re going to wrestle with is how does a community feed itself and what’s our role in the health of the community,” Habash says. “We want to make sure this is a healthy, hunger-free community.”
Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a legal affairs reorter for the Associated Press in Columbus.
Mid-Ohio Foodbank at a Glance in 2012:
- Responded to more than 142,000 food requests from member food pantries each month
- Distributed 46 million pounds of food and grocery products, a 13 percent increase since 2011
- Distributed 16.2 million pounds of fresh produce, a 71 percent increase since 2011
- Raised money to buy and operate four new refrigerated trucks to deliver fresh produce
- Collaborated with 49 community partners to serve more than 28,000 households and distribute 2.1 million pounds of fresh food
- The amount of shelf-stable items, such as canned goods and non-perishable items, has declined from 69 percent of food bank offerings in 2007 to just 50 percent of its products last year.
- The amount of meat has increased from 6 percent of the Foodbank offerings in 2007 to 8 percent in 2012.
- The amount of produce has increased to 37 percent of the total Foodbank offerings in 2012 compared to 17 percent in 2007.