Digital help on tap – Tech assistance in works

By Todd Cohen

EDEN, N.C. — Online resources and tech support are on the menu for hunger-relief groups in Georgia and North Carolina, thanks to Miller Brewing Co.

Two years ago, the Georgia division of the Philip Morris subsidiary launched a Web site designed to help hunger groups there find out about and connect with one another.

Now, using the Georgia site as a model, the North Carolina division plans to launch a site this fall.

Miller Brewing also plans to begin making grants to help nonprofits in both states make better use of computers and the Web.

“If these nonprofit groups are going to stay in business and focus on the needs of their customers, they have to be in the information age,” says Paul DeLoach, Miller’s community affairs manager for Georgia.

Georgia’s roughly 2,000 hunger-relief groups “were almost like soldiers in a field trying to fight a battle against hunger out of a foxhole,” DeLoach says. “There was little communication or information-sharing.”

So working with the state’s eight food banks, Miller identified agencies that distribute food to hungry people and hired a Wisconsin firm to create a Web site offering information about who is fighting hunger, what they’re doing and who they’re serving.

The site also features application forms that people can use to apply for food stamps and other relief programs.

In North Carolina, Miller is developing a similar site in direct response to a need voiced by hunger-relief groups for better information.

“It will provide a central place for information related to hunger,” says Cathy Wright, the company’s community affairs manager for North Carolina.

The site will include a database of hunger-relief groups, statistics on hunger and on relief efforts, and links to agencies and other resources.

The Georgia site offers a tool that hunger-relief groups need, says Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Unfortunately, he says, that tool hasn’t been as productive as it might be because state and local government officials have not embraced its use.

County social-services workers, for example, could use the site to refer clients to agencies with supplies of emergency food, he said, but that’s not happening.

“An underlying assumption of welfare reform was that we were going to build relationships between the public and private sector, that we would renegotiate roles and responsibilities,” he says. “The reality is there have been very few of those conversations going on.”

Yet federal policies designed to move welfare recipients into jobs, he says, have triggered a big increase in demand at the food bank to feed people with jobs who still can’t afford food.

“There’s a day of reckoning coming,” Bolling says. “We’re going to have to work smarter and more collaboratively and we’re going to have to get everybody to the table.”

Bolling credits Miller Brewing with being one of the “visionary” companies thinking hard about how to help nonprofits become stronger organizations.

“A company like Miller is not only at the table, but they’re going about this the way they go about their own business,” he says. “They’re thinking strategically.”

Miller Brewing also aims to begin making grants to help nonprofits in Georgia and North Carolina make better use of computers and the Web through tech tools and training.

“So often, we get grant requests from organizations that need to stock their pantry shelves,” says Wright. “But we also want to be able to teach them how they can use technology to access other resources so they can ensure their pantry shelves aren’t empty.”

While fighting hunger is a major priority of Miller Brewing, individual community affairs offices in each of the seven states in which it operates breweries decide how to focus their own hunger-relief efforts.

Miller community affairs officials in California, Ohio, Texas, Washington State and Wisconsin also are considering creating hunger-relief Web sites, says Gil Llanas, Miller’s corporate community affairs manager in Milwaukee.

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