WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Since coming out of retirement Oct. 3 to head the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, Clyde Fitzgerald has been interviewed 45 times on television and several more times on the radio and in local publications.
A top priority for Fitzgerald has been to spread the word about the challenge the Food Bank faces to secure more donations of food and money to meet unprecedented demand from agencies serving hungry people in the face of the plunging economy.
“This is a serious and very severe problem,” says Fitzgerald, who retired in 1992 after serving as a top executive at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. “One of the problems we face is apathy. People find it hard to believe hunger exists in Winston-Salem and Northwest North Carolina.”
The Food Bank this year will provide nine million pounds of food to 415 partner agencies in 18 counties that feed about 150,000 hungry people.
“But we need more because the demand is growing,” says Fitzgerald, who has served on the Food Bank board since it was formed 26 years ago and succeeded Nan Griswold, the group’s founding executive director, who retired because of health and family reasons.
Demand even is outstripping the capacity of its warehouse, which could process another three million pounds of food if the Food Bank could secure more donations.
Partner agencies say demand from hungry people for food assistance this year is up at least 30 percent and in some cases has more than doubled, mainly from people requesting assistance for the first time because they have lost a job or are hurting because of the economy.
And the need for food can be heart-breaking, he says.
In Forsyth and Guilford counties, for example, nearly half the students in the public schools qualify for lunches that are free or at a reduced price, a number that is even higher in rural areas.
At one school in Ashe County, 97 percent of students qualify, he says.
With $200,000 it raises privately, the Food Bank delivers nutritious meals and snacks to over 1,000 kids through programs at 20 sites working with partner and volunteer groups.
With additional funds, Fitzgerald says, the Food Bank could provide those programs to hundreds of sites.
And donors get a big return on investment, he says.
For every donated dollar it receives, he says, the Food Bank can obtain and distribute $12 worth of food, or enough for seven nutritious meals, through its partner agencies.
Another big priority for Fitzgerald is to obtain more donations of food from grocery chains and through food drives organized by individuals, neighborhoods and companies.
A recent drive in two neighborhoods in Winston-Salem, for example, generated 3,600 pounds of food.
The Food Bank’s fleet of nine trucks picks up food from Lowes Foods, Harris Teeter, Food Lion and Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Clubs, and delivers it to the organization’s warehouse, where its partners pick up food.
And in February, through a new partnership between Wal-Mart and Feeding America, the national network of food banks, those trucks will begin picking up food from Wal-Mart stores.
The trucks also deliver food to partner agencies that cannot get to its warehouse.
Still, Fitzgerald says, “we need to go beyond that.”
The Food Bank, for example, is encouraging more grocers to donate rather than sell food in dented cans or in packages with torn labels to “salvage reclaim centers.”
And it is asking Feeding America, which donates roughly 20 percent of the food the Food Bank receives, to increase its donations.
Fitzgerald also wants people to understand that hunger is a problem year-round, not just during the year-end holidays.
“Dealing with hunger in a land of plenty is still a problem,” he says. “We are trying to create hunger-free communities, and we do that on a local grassroots effort by working with our local partner agencies.”