GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 29, 2012

Food For Thought: Banking on our needy food supply

Food For Thought
Heather Atwood

The Greater Boston Food Bank is a happy sad story.

It's happy that the green-tech building looks like a sleekly Scandinavian — big, bold, bright — box store, a looming silver, white and red warehouse with a Green Giant-size wheat stalk logo upon it.

Inside, natural light fills the vast brushed chrome spaces. The walls are solar. One of two vast refrigerators has a control on it that, when the outside temperature hovers at 55, the unit shuts off and uses the outdoors for cooling. This vanguard, 2-year-old year building is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified silver.

The sad news is that the Greater Boston Food Bank distributed more than 36.7 million pounds of groceries to 545,000 people who couldn't afford food last year, a 23 percent increase since a 2005 study.

The Greater Boston Food Bank is the largest hunger relief organization in New England, and among the largest food banks in the country.

Serving eastern Massachusetts, the food bank provides sustenance to 550 relief agencies —-food pantries, homeless shelters, transitional shelters, after-school programs, youth centers and senior centers. It's where your local soup kitchen shops for onions and cabbage.

Last week, I wrote about the North Shore Hunger Network, a group of relief agencies on the North Shore who meet once a month to collaborate on assistance issues.

The Food Bank is these agencies' Costco, their mother ship, their grandmotherly knee.

The Food Bank's new building works hard to make it easy for agencies to fill their shelves. A food pantry or church soup kitchen can place its entire order on line. The agency's truck backs up to a covered loading dock at the Food Bank where workers have already packed up the order. The docks are refrigerated for the safest possible transport of perishables.

These elements may sound obvious, but remember that most people working in this field are volunteers, and the conditions around food relief are not usually plush. The simple gesture of not having to load the truck in the rain can make a hard job much easier.

The Greater Boston Food Bank also provides direct services of its own: The Back Pack Program distributes nutritious food to children in six different school districts on Friday afternoons, guaranteeing they will have meals over the weekend.

The Brown Bag Program provides monthly, supplemental bags of groceries to families and seniors. Last weekend, the Food Bank distributed food to veterans through Bunker Hill Community College. Struggling with just returning home from deployment, many veterans find themselves ineligible for government assistance because of that recent paycheck from the armed services.

This is a portion of the population recently identified as falling into the "food gap." A 2011 study by Feeding America identified a large segment — 47 percent — of people using food pantries and soup kitchens were there because they made just too much money to be eligible for government assistance but not enough to feed themselves and their families.

Here's more happy news: The new Food Bank building was built entirely with corporate donations. Much of what's in the two-story refrigerators, the freezer, and the vast warehouse is food that has been donated by the food industry, food drives or private donations. The building was basically built by and stocked with generosity.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also provides resources to the food bank, as does the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program.

Funded by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, MEFAP is a line item in our state budget, and Massachusetts is the only state in the nation with that kind of support for food assistance.

MEFAP offers nutrient-dense, Massachusetts-grown and -produced foods — from groups such as The Pioneer Valley Growers Association and Our Family Farms in Greenfield — to relief agencies, thus keeping the circle of dollars within the state.

The MEFAP budget was level-funded in 2011 at $11.5 million. While the Food Bank had hoped to increase that to $15 million — the cost of food and the amount of need are both increasing — at this point its leaders are just crossing fingers for level-funding again when Congress votes this spring.

The Food Bank loves volunteers, and makes it easy and comfortable to come in and sort boxes for a morning, an afternoon, or a week, a great team-building exercise for businesses and corporations.

Families are often looking for ways to involve their children in volunteerism, but it's sometimes a burden on an organization to manage them. The Food Bank has consciously addressed this, with a well-organized area designed just for children to do a rewarding job.

Go on Yelp, and read the rave reviews of people who spent a day at the Food Bank and left uplifted and expanded. Last year 40,000 volunteers put in 14,000 hours at the Food Bank, saving the organization $800,000 in labor costs, a smart way to make everyone happy.

The Greater Boston Food Bank, at 70 South Bay Ave., in Boston, emerged in the early 1970s with Kip Tiernan, who began distributing food out of the back of her station wagon.

Tiernan had grown up watching her grandmother welcome the jobless and homeless into her kitchen for a bowl of oatmeal or soup during the Depression. As the nourished "hobos" left her home, they would mark the sidewalk with a cross, indicating for others this was a "safe house."

A black cross marks the new entrance of the Greater Boston Food Bank.

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Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times' Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at heatheraa@aol.com. And follow her blog at www.heatheratwood.com.