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Issue 646

06/27/2013 at 3:59pm

Harry Chapin Food BankHarry Chapin Food Bank
Feeding Southwest Florida

Recently, the Harry Chapin Food Bank was given the honor of being rated as the highest-ranked non-profit organization in Florida and among the top 11 charities in the country by Navigator, America's top independent evaluator of charitable organizations. Many of our readers are aware of the food bank's existence, but few realize the enormous scale on which it operates – providing food for local food pantries, including the beach's Choice Market – that are spread out over 6,000 square miles and feed more than 30,000 people every month. On Tuesday morning, we took a tour of the bank's huge warehouse on Fowler Street and learned how they manage to do what they do to help so many.

"We take in, inspect, transport and distribute donated food and grocery products to more than 150 soup kitchens, church food pantries, senior nutrition centers, low-income housing sites and community centers,” said Associate Director Joyce Jacobs – herself a 20+ year veteran of the bank that opened in 1983 and named after tireless hunger fundraiser and musician Harry Chapin. "We also operate mobile food pantries and help with food stamp applications. Last year, we distributed 15.1 million pounds of food valued at $25 million.”

Jacobs – who also volunteers as a member of the Fort Myers Beach Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), told us that the food arrives at the bank via large refrigerated trucks, which are then unloaded and sorted by the forty to fifty tireless volunteers – many of whom get up at 5am to help out at the warehouse.

"One third of our food comes from our store pick-up program – 52,000 pounds a week from 160 stores, including Publix and Sweetbay supermarkets,” she said. "We also partner with the only food manufacturer in our area – Bagel Bites – and get fresh vegetables from the agriculture industry and non-perishable items from food drives that we and others hold year-round – the biggest one being the post office's Letter Carriers drive which usually brings us about 300,000 pounds.”

Once the food arrives, volunteers painstakingly sort and inspect it, and it's stored in various areas of the bank depending on how cold it needs to be kept and what type it is. We saw everything from canned food to fresh cucumbers and tomatoes to frozen lunchmeat, all of which gets distributed to needy families. Local food pantries go online to select what they need for the week, and then the bank's paid staff gets it ready for them to pick up on pallets. Over 1 million pounds are distributed monthly, and for each $100 donated, Harry Chapin is able to purchase $600 worth of food and supplies.

"We also have a section with odds and ends like salad dressings and boxes of Hamburger Helper, and the folks from the local banks that come to get their food are given fifteen minutes to chose from what's there,” said Joyce. "In addition to the Letter Carriers' Food Drive in May, we get food from the Publix Holiday Food Drive in the winter and spring, and the Boy Scout Food Drive. We are also helped in our efforts by companies, churches, service groups, and individuals who hold food donation and funding drives throughout the year to provide food to the food bank. In fact, almost 1/3 of all the food we distribute comes from these "Hunger Heroes". We will gladly work with any company, organization, or individual who wants to conduct a local drive to support food for the hungry.”

Jacobs explained that a lot of folks that visit food banks today are actually former middle class families struck hard by the recession and subsequent unemployment.

"We see quite a few where one parent or the other lost their jobs and/or homes and are trying to get back on their feet,” she said. "Many of these folks have never been in a situation where they needed assistance before. We also see a lot of senior couples where the spouse has died and the one left behind has to survive on only one social security check. Forty percent of those we help are children.”

One of the reasons Harry Chapin earned its high rating from Charity Navigator is due to the fact that 96% of each dollar donated goes to its hunger programs. That means a lot to Choice Market's Director Craig Nelms, who has been volunteering there since just after it opened in the summer of 2010. The market is the only food bank on the beach, and – due to the fact that many jobs on the island fluctuate with the season – the number of families needing aid in the summer nearly doubles.

"We feed – on average – about 800 folks a month during season which increases to 1,300 during August and September,” he said. "That is up from 2011, when we never fed more than 1,000 a month.”

The market is open every Thursday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Individuals line up at the door and are checked in before making their selections. They are provided plastic grocery bags and personally assisted through the two-room market making selections from items that include canned goods, beef, pork or chicken, eggs, lunch meat, rice and pasta.

"What many people don't realize is that a lot of folks that come to our pantry aren't homeless, they are just regular families where one person has become unemployed or underemployed and they can't feed their family on one paycheck,” Nelms told us. "We help them stretch that check a little further and many of them return to donate money to the food bank when they get back on their feet. This could happen to anyone."

"It's nice that individuals get to shop for themselves. We don't just hand them a bag of food and send them on their way," Craig continued. "Each customer gets a grocery store experience where they get to choose what they want. This provides some level of independence for those who are dependent on the market to supplement their weekly food supply.”

Nelms told us that volunteers order what they need once a week from Harry Chapin and also get bread, muffins and cupcakes from our local Publix twice a week.

"We accept donations too, that we can use to buy supplies, or folks can just drop off food items,” he said. "We also always encourage those who come here on vacation to give us their unused groceries that they can't take home with them.”

Those looking to help out have a number of options available to them. The Harry Chapin Food Bank's website is easy to use, interactive, and has all the information necessary for those who want to either volunteer or donate items and/or food: www.harrychapinfoodbank.org. To help out the Choice Market at Beach Baptist, folks can drop off a check (with 'Choice Market' written in the memo line), cash or unopened food items at Beach Baptist's church office or call 239-463-2800 to find out about volunteering.

Keri Hendry Weeg