Community kitchen offers recipe for teamwork

By Merrill Wolf

RALEIGH, N.C. — Many thousands of North Carolinians wake up each morning and go to bed each night hungry.

With more than 15 percent of the state’s population living in poverty – and that number rising each year — even the combined efforts of hundreds of soup kitchens, food pantries and other hunger-relief organizations cannot keep pace with the need.

That is partly why two veteran agencies based in Raleigh are trying a new approach – a collaborative venture that already is helping them reach more children, senior citizens, disabled people and others who rely on donated groceries and meals.

Organizers say the new arrangement is working out so well that it is attracting attention as a model for food banks and food-rescue groups in other parts of North Carolina and the U.S.

“Community investment has made this possible,” says Jill Staton Bullard, who in 1989 co-founded the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.

The Food Shuttle salvages unused food from restaurants, grocery stores and other vendors, and gives it to people in need.

In 1999, it joined forces with Meals on Wheels of Wake County to create Food Runners Collaborative, a separate nonprofit charged with building, managing and running a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen and food-distribution center that serves both original organizations.

Food Runners’ board of directors includes representatives of both agencies, but they never seriously considered merging – despite outside pressure, including from donors.

Although both work to alleviate hunger, they have different missions, different clientele, and different organizational cultures.

Merging, says Bullard, “didn’t make sense.”

Since opening its doors in November 2004, the $3 million, 18,000-square-foot Food Runners building near the state Farmers Market, one of its principal food donors, has allowed Meals on Wheels and the Food Shuttle to process and deliver substantially more food to needy clients.

The food shuttle alone, for example, has increased its food distribution about 18 percent, Thanks primarily to the increased capacity afforded it by the new building’s loading docks, which accommodate tractor-trailers full of donated food.

Previously, the shuttle had to turn away vehicles that big.

Bullard expects total food distributed to hit 5.2 million pounds this year, an increase of nearly 25 percent.

The Food Runners building, which houses all three organizations’ offices, also features more space for food processing and storage – including large walk-in coolers and freezers – and a 6,000-square-foot shared kitchen.

The collaboration has also enabled both Meals on Wheels and the Food Shuttle to expand previously neglected aspects of their operations and, along with Food Runners itself, to grow in new, sometimes unforeseen directions.

“All three of us have morphed into more than we were when we started,” says Bullard.

The Food Shuttle, for example, can now blast-freeze food, reducing waste by eliminating the need to discard perishable foods that cannot be processed immediately.

It has begun preparing meals for distribution and started a summer food service for children who participate in schools’ free or reduced lunch programs but are unserved when school is out of session.

And the larger, more professional space has allowed doubling of its culinary job-training program, which teaches homeless, mentally ill and other people skills needed to get and keep jobs in the food-service industry.

The biggest change for Meals on Wheels, whose more than 2,000 volunteers deliver or serve almost 1,500 meals every day to Wake County senior citizens, is that the meals are now prepared on site, by Food Runners’ workers.

Previously, the organization depended on a Durham caterer that recently ceased operations.

The new arrangement is more reliable and efficient, says Cathy Ulicny, executive director of Meals on Wheels.

In fact, she says, the new arrangement has enabled the agency to maintain its previous level of food distribution despite a recent loss of $80,000 in federal funding.

“Had we not been in this facility, we would have had to stop serving many of our clients,” she says. “But with the lower meal cost, we haven’t had to discontinue anyone.”

Food Runners cooks and packages meals not only for Meals on Wheels but also for several other agencies in Wake, Johnston and Durham counties.

Under the leadership of Bob Lindsay, its executive director and a former engineering manager, Food Runners also manages and coordinates activities in the new building.

Provision of these “back-office” services allows the founding agencies to focus on their expertise, Lindsay says – distribution.

Unexpected challenges

The new facility near downtown Raleigh appears to be a maze of efficiency, with the physical layout facilitating smooth coordination of activities performed by the three organizations’ staff and volunteers.

Warehouse shelves hold boxes overflowing with canned vegetables, kid-sized juice boxes, plastic cups of applesauce and other packaged foods. Volunteers sort through large quantities of potatoes, setting aside those that have already spoiled for the compost heap at the Farmers Market. Stacks of blue and white coolers wait to be packed and loaded onto trucks and vans.

But the road to this point held a number of surprises and challenges.

A lot more was involved, for example, in managing construction of the building than Food Runner founders had anticipated.

“We were two wonderful organizations with vibrant leadership,” says Bullard, “but we had no idea how to build and manage a building.”

They didn’t hire Lindsay to oversee that process until after completion of the capital campaign.

He started his job the very day workers started digging the footing for the new building.

In retrospect, Bullard and Ulciny say, they would have brought him on sooner, with one task being to help establish a separate identity for the new venture.

Lindsay himself strongly recommends that other nonprofits embarking on a similar joint venture not skimp in the planning phases of the project.

Too many mistakes are made in the name of saving money, he says. “Organizations should not be afraid to bite the bullet, to hire and listen to consultants,” he says. “Money could have been saved overall if more had been spent in planning.”

Ulciny of Meals on Wheels says flexibility and a sense of humor are key qualities that nonprofits should bring to collaborations.

Inevitably, she says, the new enterprise will run into barriers that “you have to break down, jump over, or hold hands and walk alongside. If you have respect for each other … you can overcome a lot.”

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