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Community News

Foodbank efforts continue year-round

12/26/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank President and CEO Dan Flowers is shown fourth from left with some of the 64 employees in the warehouse at 350 Opportunity Parkway in Akron.
The newest truck added to the fleet at the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank is shown above. Officials said trucking is the organization’s biggest expense.
Photos courtesy of Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank
Donated nonperishables that have been sorted for distribution by Foodbank volunteers are shown above.
A crew of volunteers from the J.M. Smucker Co. helped sort donated food items earlier this month at the Foodbank.
Photo: Kathleen Folkerth
DOWNTOWN AKRON — For more than 30 years, the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank has been taking surplus and donated food items and putting them into the hands of those who need it most. 

“What a beautiful concept: to keep food from going to waste and help people who are struggling,” said Dan Flowers, the Foodbank’s president and CEO. “It’s a winning idea.”

Today, Flowers said the Foodbank is seeing more need than ever for the food it provides to pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.

“Since the recession, we’ve seen a significant increase in food pantries,” he said. “We’ve added a lot of agencies in the last few years.”

Flowers said in the eight-county region the Foodbank serves — Summit, Medina, Portage, Stark, Tuscarawas, Wayne, Holmes and Carroll — there are 233,000 people who are considered to be food insecure. Food insecurity refers to the USDA’s measure of lack of regular access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.

“In Summit County, there are 87,000, or one in four kids,” Flowers added. “Their average income is $650 a month, so they live on hardly anything. They have to make tough choices between food and prescription drugs and, at this time of the year, their heating bill.”

It’s those residents that the Foodbank serves, but the facility does not work directly with those in need. Instead, it serves as a distribution center to more than 500 programs, many of them faith based and grassroots, that strive to feed the hungry.

Flowers said food banks were created in the 1960s, but their creation was not necessarily in response to those in need.

“It wasn’t the emergence of hunger,” Flowers said. “It was borne out of the availability of charitable food.”

The industrialization of the food industry led to surpluses of foods that would otherwise go to waste without food banks, he said.

In fact, Flowers said most of the food the Foodbank takes in comes in the form of private donations from companies like J.M. Smucker and grocery stores like Giant Eagle. The donations generate tax breaks for the companies and also serve as a way for them to clear excess inventory, Flowers said.

A lot of the food the Foodbank receives are items such as product launches that didn’t succeed, like a new cracker flavor, or surplus seasonal items, like Halloween cookies that aren’t as easily sold once the holiday passes.

Some of the large lots of products the Foodbank receives come through its partnership with Feeding America, a national network of food banks that works with major food companies to acquire donations. And sometimes the Foodbank trades with other large food banks, Flowers said.

“We try to have a good balance of stuff,” he said. “Very rarely do we get items we can’t use.”

The Foodbank was founded in 1982 and moved to its present 85,000-square-foot facility at 350 Opportunity Parkway in 2007. In its spacious dry goods warehouse, aisles are neatly arranged with inventory piled high on industrial shelves. The Foodbank also has 8,000 square feet of cooler and freezer space for perishable items.

While corporate donations account for nearly all of the inventory, Flowers said the organization appreciates the many food drives that take place in the community that result in millions of dollars worth of food items to be distributed. As part of the Hunger Free Families campaign through Dec. 31, there were 200 drives taking place, he said.

“At the end of the day as a donor, it’s important that you feel good about what you did,” he said. “Your experience as a donor has a lot to do with what you get from it.” 

A separate area of the warehouse facility is where those donations come in and are inspected and sorted by teams of volunteers. On a recent day, more than two-dozen Smuckers employees made the trip from Orrville to spend the afternoon sorting and boxing donated goods.

Flowers said the Foodbank has a commitment to making sure the food it distributes is safe, so a significant effort is made to weed out expired and recalled food items.

As for distributing the food, agencies affiliated with the Foodbank use an online system to request items and then schedule a pickup time. Five agencies at a time can make their stops at the top and bottom of every hour, Flowers said. They also can pick up extra items at that time, such as ripe fruit that needs to be consumed or cooked soon.

Flowers said the Foodbank does purchase some food for distribution at a significant discount. Member agencies receive some food at no charge and pay for some, as well.

The main cost to its operation, Flowers said, is trucking. The Foodbank has seven semis that pick up food around the region. Sometimes the Foodbank contracts with trucking companies to make out-of-region or out-of-state food pickups, he added. Monetary donations help cover the costs of trucking.

While the Foodbank doesn’t serve as a food pantry itself, the organization works to help people seeking help, according to Kat Pestian, the Foodbank’s communications coordinator.

Through its website, www.akroncantonfoodbank.org, there is a link under “Need Help” that allows those looking for hot meal programs or pantries a chance to search by ZIP code or address for the nearest locations. Residents also can call 855-560-0850 to ask questions about food assistance programs and more.

Flowers said monetary donations received in the fourth quarter of the year make up 40 percent of the total donated to the Foodbank all year. Every bit helps, he added, but he noted the Foodbank is in the business of addressing hunger all year long.

“On Jan. 1, it’s still going to be there, and we’re going to be there fighting the fight,” he said.

For more information on the Foodbank, go to the website or call 330-535-6900.

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