By Todd Cohen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Corporate mergers and technological change in the food industry are prompting hunger-fighting nonprofit groups to revamp the way they acquire, handle and distribute food.
“What food banks have to do is get more creative,” says Anne Register, executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina.
The 19-year-old Food Bank has piled ambitious new programs on its plate in recent years — and still is hungry for more.
Last year, the Food Bank distributed 7.2 million pounds of food and grocery products to 475 charities that fed 800,000 people in 17 counties, including York and Lancaster counties in South Carolina.
The agency’s main job is getting manufacturers and grocers to donate food, and then getting that food to charities that feed people.
The Food Bank delivers about $10 million worth of food a year, and spends $1.3 million a year to run its operation.
Donated food and other grocery products are stored at the group’s main warehouse in a West Charlotte building owned by Mecklenburg County.
Food pantries and other groups can pick up food at the warehouse, or at a former schoolhouse in Mount Gilead that serves Anson, Montgomery and Stanly counties.
The Food Bank also makes rural deliveries in Burke, Cleveland and Rutherford counties.
Food is donated to the group, which has a staff of 33 and depends on 100 core volunteers who work weekly or twice a month.
Agencies that receive food pay a handling fee of 14 cents a pound, and the Food Bank receives government funding, including $167,000 this year from state lawmakers.
It also will raise about $750,000 this year through special events and promotions, as well as unsolicited gifts, such as $50,000 from the Olive Garden restaurant chain and $3,000 from rock star Bruce Springsteen.
But the big challenge is persuading donors to contribute food – a challenge that gets tougher as food companies become more efficient in the way they manufacture and handle food.
“Surplus and salvageable product in the food industry is what made food banking work,” says Register, who has headed the Food Bank for more than 15 years.
But with industry consolidation and more sophisticated ways of packaging and handling food, she says, “there’s not nearly as much available for donation.”
What’s more, Americans’ diets and preferences have changed.
To be a more attractive market for donated food, and to better supply the needs of charities and the people they serve, food banks are being more innovative and entrepreneurial.
The Food Bank, for example, is one of six North Carolina members of America’s Second Harvest, the national network of nearly 200 food banks.
Last month, America’s Second Harvest merged with Foodchain, a network of charities that provide prepared food to groups that feed hungry people, in one of the largest nonprofit mergers in U.S. history.
The merger is expected to increase the volume of food donated to the network. The Food Bank has collaborated with Charlotte’s Foodchain member, Community Food Rescue, and is talking about other ways to work together.
The Food Bank also has launched a series of new initiatives, including a Kids Café program to feed youngsters and a mobile pantry that delivers perishable food.
The agency feeds 100 youngsters a week at four churches and community centers, and Register hopes to expand that program to all 17 counties in its service area.
The Carolina Panthers, for example, recently gave the Food Bank $10,000 to start a new Kids Café.
The mobile pantry consists of an old beer delivery truck that the Food Bank refurbished with $15,000 from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources through a program that aims to create models for limiting growth of landfills.
In less than a year, the truck has delivered 200,000 pounds of perishable food.
Also a year ago, the Food Bank contracted with Harris Teeter to run its reclamation center in Matthews that disposes of dry goods that can’t be sold because of damage or other reasons.
As a result of that contract, grocery items donated to the Food Bank have grown by 600,000 pounds.
Now, the Food Bank is planning a Web site it hopes to launch this year to build public awareness about its operation, offer e-commerce services to the agencies it serves and strengthen its fundraising and food-solicitation efforts.
Register says her biggest challenge is straightforward: Do a better job of getting and distributing food, and raising money.
“The demand is always greater than the supply,” she says. “The need for helping people is certainly not diminishing.”