Large food pantries purchase the majority of their food, and even donated food isn’t free when you consider everything. Only a very small percentage comes from the cupboards of our homes.
The supply of food from supermarkets has evaporated as a result of improved inventory control, while demand for food assistance has gone up 40 percent and stayed there. Working on innovative alternatives in order to meet the need, Mid-Ohio Foodbank is offering more fresh food to pantries in central Ohio.
By focusing on food acquisition instead of food buying, the foodbank can stretch its dollar. The foodbank now pays the fees around picking, packing, and transporting leftover produce from farms. More than three billion pounds of fresh produce is left in American fields or harvested and not sold every year. Nationwide, food banks are finding ways to utilize this nutritious food.
“When we go in to buy canned food, even with our wholesale buying, we’re still spending on average, 50-75 cents a pound. I can bring produce in for 17 cents a pound. So it’s a much better use of the dollar and in a lot of cases, it’s a much healthier product,” said Matt Habash, president and CEO of Mid-Ohio Foodbank.
Habash says the shift offers clients better, more exciting food options.
“We can offer meat, potatoes, and carrots. We teach crock-pot cooking. As compared to the old model where there was never enough of that available, I would go into the marketplace with donated dollars and buy tuna fish and hamburger helper,”
While great for nutrition, new challenges for food banks and pantries come with more fresh food.
“Overall, it’s a fantastic trend because it’s bringing food that traditionally may not have been available to the neighbors that we serve. Now that fresh food is in their kitchens, the families are eating a healthier, more well-balanced diet. The new challenges for us are cold storage to keep them fresh longer and the space to simply display it. Also, with the amount of produce, when it arrives on the pallet you have to be able to handle that efficiently,” said Brad Draper, corporate director of Food Pantry Services for Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio.
The Salvation Army has also found itself working with more fresh food at its five food pantries in Franklin County.
“Education around ways to use produce is a challenge we are facing. We have to educate our staff so that we can turn around and teach that to the families that we serve. Nutritionally, the fresh food is amazing and I love having it. It maximizes our dollars,” said Krista Ross, associate director of Social Services at The Salvation Army.
Hunger is a very serious issue in Franklin County, where more than 350,000 people are eligible for food assistance. That’s enough to fill Ohio Stadium three times or, in other words, just over a third of our population. The incredibly hard-working people who staff our food pantries stress the danger of hunger being an invisible problem.
“We see people from all across the spectrum, from mechanical engineers to you name it, there isn’t a stereotypical food pantry client. Hunger could happen to anyone. Every month, 10-20 percent of our families have never been to a food pantry before. Every day more families find themselves in a situation. It could be benefits running out, unemployment, or a health crisis. Folks don’t want to use a food pantry. But know that we are here when you need us,” Draper said.
Thankfully, this crisis is something we can work to solve as a community. In November, The Columbus Foundation announced a Critical Need Alert for Hunger to donors to help 10 nonprofits handle the challenges of storage and refrigeration of fresh fruits and vegetables. Columbus Foundation donors responded by donating more than $325,000 to ensure our most vulnerable neighbors receive critical services.
“I encourage everyone, to spend some time volunteering at a food pantry to see what that experience is like, get to know some of our neighbors who might be struggling a little bit. I would also encourage people if they can, to donate financially to their local food pantry,” Draper said.
Krista Ross at The Salvation Army noted that volunteers with a background in nutrition could be incredibly helpful as this fresh food shift happened fast.
“Real potatoes versus canned potatoes, that choice for families is very nice. The storage and education parts are what we are struggling with and that just means food pantries need to catch up to the trend. This trend happened pretty quickly. It’s here and it’s not going anywhere and that’s great but we need to be able to live within the trend,” Ross said.
Food pantries in Franklin County get the vast majority of their food from Mid-Ohio Foodbank.
“A lot of people don’t know that we actually purchase a lot of the food on our shelves from the foodbank and most pantries do that. It’s not all free and it does cost us, however we are able to stretch that dollar a whole lot further than the typical consumer can in the grocery store,” Draper said.
These are unpredictable times for all of us and your consideration of this issue is greatly appreciated. You can find the programs of some of the nonprofits addressing hunger in our community below.
“This is survival. It’s not financial assistance necessarily. People do not abuse the system. People need this in order to continue to breath,” Ross said.
Information about more than 600 local nonprofits is available 24/7 through the Foundation’s online resource, PowerPhilanthropy, which is available to everyone who wants to be more informed about nonprofits before they give. PowerPhilanthropy makes it easy to donate to the causes you care about at columbusfoundation.org/p2/.