In 1980 200 food banks existed in the entire United States. Today there are over 40,000 food banks, pantries and soup kitchens. With all the recent cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called the Food Stamp Program) food banks are doing the heavy lifting in ensuring those who are hungry get the food they need. Food banks were once considered a place to turn in an emergency, for a little while. Now they are a necessity to many. So how do food banks work?
Individual food banks are often networked together with other food banks and coordinated at the county or state level. State and Federal resources are then funneled from the parent organization to each food pantry in the network. The individual food banks serve local areas often defined by a local government jurisdiction or school district boundaries. They have set hours each week when clients can come get their food. Clients are allowed to come once a month to receive a full allotment of groceries, but often the pantry will allow clients to come weekly to get donated bread/baked goods and perishable items like fresh produce when available.
Most of the food at food banks comes not from donations, but from State and Federal food distribution programs. The Federal program, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), provides USDA purchased commodities and has been in existence since 1981. The State Food Purchase Program supplements TEFAP by providing funds to food agencies. These agencies buy food in bulk and then distribute it to the food banks in their network. These two programs provide the majority of food distributed by food pantries.
Food banks and pantries, however, receive food other ways. Who hasn’t given a donation to a local organization sponsoring a food drive. I have sent food in to my kids’ schools and every year a Boy Scout troop distributes empty bags in our neighborhood one week and comes back to collect the filled bags the next week. Right now (not long after the winter holidays) one food pantry in which I volunteer is still sorting through boxes of food donated during the holidays.
Both of the food pantries I am familiar with get large weekly donations of bread/bakery products. A staff member at one pantry goes to a local grocery store and takes all the bakery items the store can no longer sell and was going to throw away. The other pantry has a volunteer who picks up similarly expired bread products from a local chain restaurant that specializes in sandwiches. In both pantries these items are frozen to be distributed to clients through the week.
Food banks and pantries have learned to capitalize on what is unique or abundant in their area. For instance here in rural Pennsylvania, we have many farmers. In the summer when produce is plentiful, sometimes too plentiful (zucchini again?!) farmers can donate their extra produce to the food bank. In addition to taking donations of produce, the main county food bank has partnered with local farmers who grow produce for the county food bank network. That produce is then distributed to the food banks in the network who are able to take it. Additionally, food pantries that have the land available grow their own produce in garden plots and/or raised beds.
Finally, living in rural Pennsylvania there are many hunters and many more deer. Our county food bank participates in a statewide program called Hunters Sharing the Harvest. Hunters can donate their deer to a participating butcher for processing. The food bank picks up the processed venison and distributes it to the participating local pantries. I think this is a great win win situation–hunters are helping those in need and controlling the deer population.
Here are some links to websites I found helpful and informative
- Feeding America http://www.feedingamerica.org
- Chester County Food Bank http://www.chestercountyfoodbank.org
- Hunters Sharing the Harvest http://www.sharedeer.org
- Coalition Against Hunger http://www.hungercoalition.org
- State of Hunger http://www.hungerreportpa.com
I encourage you to take a look at what is happening in your area. Is there a way you can help? Often food banks have a list of items most needed. Next time you donate to a food drive, find out what is most needed. I’d love to hear of any innovative programs offered by other food banks.