Hunger Is, a joint charitable program of the Albertsons Companies Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), has been working with community-based organizations across the U.S. and national partners, like WhyHunger, to help end childhood hunger by investing in nutritious breakfast for every child! They have helped fuel innovative programs to provide 6.4 million healthy breakfasts to over 200,000 kids. Last year alone, their grantees in 33 states and the District of Columbia provided enough fresh fruits and vegetables to equal the weight of the Statue of Liberty – over 460,000 lbs. – to help give kids the fuel they need to grow, learn and thrive. We’ve been teaming up with Hunger Is to spotlight these critical programs and their impact. WhyHunger recently visited the Northern Illinois Food Bank to see their BackPack program in action and created this short video to share its impact.

The Northern Illinois Food Bank serves more than 71,500 people across thirteen counties of Northern Illinois. 66 percent of the households served fall at or below the federal poverty level and 36 percent of recipients are children under the age of 18. It’s a mix of small to mid-sized towns, Chicago suburbs and exurbs and rural agricultural communities. Despite being in America’s breadbasket with seemingly endless corn fields, food insecurity and a lack of nutritional options affect far too many residents.

The Food Bank has been addressing food needs since 1983 when Sister Rosemarie Burian began distributing food via soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters. Since then, the Food Bank has grown and evolved, realizing its role in not just providing food, but providing healthy food and reaching into the hunger gaps that exist within communities. A 2014 Hunger in America study found that 53 percent of households served by Northern Illinois Food Bank reported at least one family member with high blood pressure, while 26 percent of households had at least one family member with diabetes.

The Food Bank was seeking ways to combat diet-related disease, reach more people with healthy food and reach them at the right times even before that study. In 2008, the Food Bank began a BackPack program, which now distributes a variety of shelf-stable foods each week to students in more than 180 schools during the school year. The BackPack program aims to fill the meal gap for children at risk of hunger at times when they are not in school, such as evenings and weekends. School partners often reported that students who rely on free and reduced lunch for weekday meals would often come to school on Mondays feeling sluggish and irritable due to not having adequate access to meals over the weekend, thus putting them at a disadvantage to learn and perform.

“77 percent of the families we serve have reported that they will purchase inexpensive processed foods, even if unhealthy, to stretch their food budgets,” says Liz Gartman, Communications Manager at Northern Illinois Food Bank. “So we looked at how we could help mitigate the challenges of providing nutritious meals at home so these kids can have the proper nutrition over the weekends they need to grow and lead healthy, active lives.”

The BackPack program is simple: Food Bank staff and volunteers pack a variety of shelf-stable products – whole grain rice, cereals and pasta, milk, canned chicken or tuna, canned fruit and veggies – into rolling backpacks which are delivered to the 180+ schools each week. At the end of each week, each eligible student picks up their backpack and takes it home for the weekend, returning it Monday morning to be refilled later that week for the coming weekend.

The Food Bank continues to seek ways to expand its BackPack program, including growing it to include more summer sites, as summer break creates another critical hunger gap for many families. With funding support from various private donors, like Hunger Is, more backpacks can be filled with nutritious food to reach more children during the school year and summer break alike.

“Our overall mission of solving hunger means getting every hungry neighbor every meal every day, and that includes reaching kids no matter where they are,” says Gartman.

Hunger Is, a joint charitable program of the Albertsons Companies Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), builds awareness and raises funds to end childhood hunger. The Idaho Foodbank received a grant to fund efforts in Idaho. This is the third in a WhyHunger series of profiles of grant recipients and their impact.

This spotlight is a feature of WhyHunger’s digital storytelling that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Food Bank of North Alabama, Huntsville, AL. Story and photos by David Hanson. 

The Food Bank of North Alabama is also featured in the special report, America's Food Banks Say Charity Won't End Hunger, which can be found here. 

The world’s first food bank is not that old. In 1967 retired businessman John van Hengel was volunteering for a soup kitchen in Phoenix, AZ. He would routinely accumulate more food than he could use for the needy.

Then a soup kitchen recipient told him that she often fed her family unopened food from a grocery store dumpster. The woman asked Hengel why there couldn’t be a place to store excess food so needy individuals like herself could pick it up. Why not replace the middle man: instead of a dumpster, why not use a facility, a sort of bank for food?

It made perfect sense, and Hengel tackled the opportunity. His parish, St Mary’s Basilica, gave Hengel $3,000 and an empty warehouse to start his operation. It would be simple. Individuals and companies could “deposit” money or food and needy community members could “withdraw” it.

Hengel got a national grant to launch food banks across the country. The idea took off nationally and abroad.

Almost fifty years later, the Feeding America organization oversees around 200 member food banks nationwide. The general food bank model is simple: Gather food from retail markets and via the USDA, which buys surplus farm yields and makes it available to food banks. The stored food is used for emergency relief after natural disasters and to provide for needy individuals, families, and school children (weekends) on an ongoing basis. The food banks are committed to purchasing food at the lowest cost available. At the Food Bank of North Alabama, as is the case at most food banks, quality is often overshadowed by quantity. Or, more accurately, the cost that matters is the immediate one, price of goods, not the long-term environmental and health costs of processed foods.

“One day we got a truckload of peas at the lowest cost,” says Kathryn Strickland, executive director of the Food Bank of North Alabama (FBNA). “We looked at a can. It was grown, processed, and shipped from China. 11,000 miles away. This was a wake-up call for us.”

Strickland and her staff dug in deeper to find that 2/3 of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the US came from outside the country.

“So why does a food bank care about that?” asked Strickland. “We used to get truckloads of produce from farmers in our region. They’d bring us excess potatoes, squash, tomatoes, apples. In the 1990s as the country promoted the Get Big or Get Out agriculture shift toward mono-crops, we watched farmers whom we’d had relationships with sell their land or quit veggie production all together. Some went into bankruptcy. So we have a keen understanding of the cost of imported foods on northern Alabama.”

FBNA went a step beyond their own anecdotal research. They hired a study to assess the state of their regional food-farm economy. The study found that 54% of farmers in the food bank’s eleven county region reported net losses. Of the ones reporting gains, all of them were earning less now (with inflation adjustment) than they did in 1969.

“So our strategy quickly shifted to focus on local food as a catalyst for economic development,” says Strickland.

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WhyHunger is proud to announce the launch of its new Find Food Texting Service that will allow more people than ever to find healthy food in their neighborhood via a simple text message! This is a national service that is critical in making food even more accessible to those in need and it eliminates the extra step of making a call. To find food all you have to do is text your zip code to 1-800-548-6479 to get an instant listing of places in your area that you can go to for food assistance.

As part of the Nourish Network for the Right to Food, the WhyHunger Hotline 1-800-5 HUNGRY (1-800-548-6479) refers people in need of emergency food assistance to food pantries, government programs and model grassroots organizations nationally that work to increase access to nutritious food and build self-reliance. Help is available by phone Monday through Friday from 9am-6pm EST and now with the new text option, information can be retrieved 24/7.

In addition, WhyHunger continues to add resources (food banks, food pantries, food access sites) to its comprehensive Find Food Database of emergency food providers from around the US with the most up-to-date information about access to healthy food and nutrition services. If you need any further assistance, don’t hesitate to call our Hotline number directly, search "find food" or send a text!

If you think this is a valuable resource as much as we do, please consider helping us spread the word by downloading and sharing Hotline flyers to your networks and on social media. Available in English and Spanish.

Just released! We are excited to share a new report and video made in collaboration with WhyHunger and food access organizations from around the country that participated in the recent national Closing the Hunger Gap “Cultivating Food Justice” Conference. Special Report: America’s Food Banks Say Charity Won’t End Hunger calls for a transformation from charity to justice and explores the growing conversation among food access organizations that ending hunger will take much more than food distribution. When the goal is to transform the systems and policies that perpetuate hunger, what role do emergency food providers play in achieving long-term change? How are resources allocated and how is success measured? Why is a focus on social justice essential?

Get the full report and watch the video to learn how America’s emergency food system is rethinking charity. Join the conversation with #HungerGap.

In the last few months, the staff of WhyHunger's National Hunger Clearinghouse has been on a tour of emergency food providers (EFPs -- such as food banks or soup kitchens) in New Jersey. The visits are part of an exciting new capacity building project we're piloting, called Nourishing Connections. Nourishing Connections aims to connect EFPs to resources and connect like-minded organizations to each other to foster shared learning. Nourishing Connections will also identify and showcase current and emerging leaders in the emergency food world who are challenging and changing the role EFPs play in efforts to end hunger, and connect them with the broader food justice movement.

WhyHunger is piloting Nourishing Connections in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The first part of the year has had us visiting the Garden State to get a snapshot of the great work happening there.

Like all emergency food providers in the past several years, New Jersey EFPs have seen an increase in clients due to the recession. The arrival of Superstorm Sandy last fall only compounded the problem, increasing the number of people who rely on EFPs for food and other services. Despite extra demand, EFPs continue to serve their communities and continue to be at the forefront of disaster relief long after media attention has faded.

Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties When people think about Monmouth and Ocean counties, they often think of the Jersey Shore, fun and summer vacation. For clients of the Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, summer time isn’t so much fun. Housing on the Shore is often rented to tourists at the highest possible price, leaving people who can't afford vacation-rental prices with fewer housing options. As a result, people end up staying with friends, in shelters or living in their cars. The Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties (FBMOC) partners with local housing organizations to help clients locate housing and the food bank itself helps clients with utilities assistance. As part of an ongoing efforts to assist people affected by Sandy, FBMOC continues to make sure people get disaster relief by registering clients in a database that focuses on long-term recovery efforts and ensuring that people’s needs are matched with the resources available.

FBMOC conducts outreach and provides clients with assistance in applying for Medicaid, SNAP (formerly food stamps) and TANF throughout Monmouth and Ocean counties. FBMOC also addresses employment through a culinary arts job skills training program. FBMOC newest service is a program awarding capacity building grants to some of its 260 member agencies.

Center for Food Action As a member of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOAD, Center for Food Action (CFA) has been heavily involved in Sandy relief efforts since October, in addition to its regular services. CFA's home of Bergen County has one of the leading VOAD groups in New Jersey, and CFA has been an active member, with services including feeding and relocating people, paying for storage and buying and replacing appliances for more than 4,000 NJ residents affected by Sandy.

CFA has been focused on Sandy recovery as part of a strategy of multi-faceted advocacy, particularly to ensure that New Jersey gets its fair share of recovery dollars from the federal government. CFA's regular advocacy work ranges from personal advocacy for clients--to make sure they get benefits they are eligible for--to statewide efforts advocating for fair food policies like Universal School Breakfast. CFA is also committed to educating other EFPs about the benefits of doing advocacy work. Many EFPs feel they don’t have enough time to do advocacy work or that it is outside the scope of their mission. CFA's perspective, instead, is that engaging in advocacy work improves EFPs' ability to distribute food. The secret to getting EFPs on board: starting with baby steps and simple actions that raise the voices of clients -- because their voices are the most powerful tool for advocacy.

CFA has an exceptionally diverse client base, and has adapted to meet their varied needs. CFA clients speak English, Spanish, Korean and Croatian; CFA has done outreach and recruited staff and volunteers who speak all of those languages. In response to increased diversity of clients’ dietary needs, CFA has risen to the challenge by providing options like kosher meals, diabetic food packages and culturally relevant foods.

Community Food Bank of New Jersey When you mention Community Food Bank of New Jersey (CFBNJ) in the tri-state area, folks have nothing but good things to say. It‘s a testament to the organization's innovative work and the lasting partnerships.

CFBNJ has built a great relationship with America’s Grow a Row, a group who provides nutrition and food education for children on various farms across New Jersey. CFBNJ sends 500 to 600 children to Grow a Row farms every summer, where the kids to learn where their food comes from--get to bring home fresh produce they’ve harvested themselves. America’s Grow a Row has provided CFBNJ with 600,000 pounds of produce.

The CFBNJ Agency Relations Department is working to build partnership among their member agencies by forming coalitions. Agencies are grouped in coalition around a given topic in order to increase dialogue among them--in an effort to foster collaborative work and encourage shared service.

Understanding that hunger is a symptom of poverty and that food distribution is merely a stopgap effort that won't solve the larger problem, CFBNJ works hundreds of with other organizations through the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey to address three poverty issues: hunger, housing and employment. As a part of the network, CFBNJ has met with local and state elected officials people to discuss how these issues fit together and advocate for larger change.

Through a WhyHunger partnership with HMS Host, these three groups received $10,000 this year. We look forward to continued engagement with these food banks through Nourishing Connections and other projects in the coming years.

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Welcome to WhyHunger’s Connect Blog featuring stories, projects and articles from the community-based organizations, organizers and social movements that are building the movement for food justice.

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