Food Bank, Food Shuttle eye possible merger

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. – The boards of the Food Bank of Eastern & Central North Carolina and the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle have begun preliminary talks that the founder of the Food Shuttle says eventually could lead to a merger.

“The two organizations are in discussion to see if there are synergies to go forward into a new partnership,” says Jill Staton Bullard, founder and president of the Food Shuttle. “We’d like to think that the Food Bank and the Food Shuttle are looking at getting married, combining the best of each and creating a new union.”

Marilyn Forbes, a partner at law firm Womble Carlyle and chair of the Food Bank board, says the two boards held their initial meeting June 6 to “introduce ourselves.”

The talk was “preliminary,” she says.

“We had a good discussion about ways to collaborate together on issues of hunger in North Carolina,” she says. “We’ve had a long relationship providing those kinds of services.”

Stan Taylor, vice president for corporate planning and managed care at WakeMed and a member of the Food Shuttle board, says the two-hour meeting included the chief executive and two board members from each organization and was designed as a first step for the two groups to become more acquainted.

The talk was “very preliminary and not long-term” and no specific plans were made for a follow-up meeting, he says.

“We were really talking about ways we could collaborate and ways we could get to know one another better,” he says. “The two organizations are going to get to know one another.”

A merger would combine two organizations that provide food to agencies that feed hungry people.

While their missions are similar and the seven counties the Food Shuttle serves are among the 34 counties the larger Food Bank serves, the operations and focus of the two Raleigh-based organizations differ, and they sometimes are seen as competing for donations.

With 70 employees and an annual operating budget of $6.2 million, the Food Bank operates five fully-functioning food-bank warehouses and distributes over 31 million pounds of food a year to a network of nearly 900 food pantries, shelters and emergency feeding sites.

Rather than warehousing food, the Food Shuttle picks up and delivers perishable foods, and delivers them to 210 agencies that feed hungry people.

With 24 employees and an annual operating budget of roughly $1.5 million, the Food Shuttle each year recovers 2 million pounds of perishable and “shelf-stable” food and grocery items such as pop-top cans, tuna fish and peanut butter from the Raleigh Farmers Market and another 3 million to 3.5 million pounds from retail grocers and delivers it to agencies that feed hungry people and directly to people in need.

The Food Shuttle, which does not warehouse food, also “blast-freezes” food at its facility at the Farmers Market, extending the shelf life of the food to six-to-12 months from 12-to-72 hours, Bullard says

The Food Shuttle trains people who are homeless or recovering from alcoholism or addiction or other problems in culinary skills as they prepare meals that the Food Shuttle then delivers to others in need.

The organization also shares its facility with Meals on Wheels of Wake County, with each occupying a side of the building and sharing common space such as a board room, kitchen and rest rooms.

“We live together,” Bullard says.

The Food Shuttle also prepares and delivers healthy snacks and meals for children at multiple sites where they receive after-school tutoring and mentoring, including sites that are part of the Kids Café program operated by the Food Bank, Bullard says.

She says the talks are in their earliest stage and that any reductions in funding for either organization could result in less food for hungry people.

The two organizations also want to be careful that any merger does not reduce the amount of food they provide to the agencies and individuals they serve, Bullard says.

After Jane Cox announced in April she was stepping down as president and CEO of the Food Bank, Bullard says, she and Cox met for breakfast and agreed a stronger partnership between the two agencies would be “a legacy both of us would feel good about for this community.”

Peter Werbicki, vice president of operations for the Food Bank, was named acting president and CEO, effective June 1.

A merger, Bullard says, is like a marriage.

“A marriage is two equal partners that delegate back and forth and share the best of each other,” she says.

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