Food bank 2.0: More of everything

Increased space, visibility let Clark County Food Bank pursue prevention, education as well as feeding the hungry

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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CLARK COUNTY FOOD BANK

Founded: 1985 by the Salvation Army as the Clark County Food Bank Coalition

Former home: 8,000-square-foot “Stop Hunger” warehouse in Hazel Dell

New home: In Jan. 2012, the Clark County Food Bank moved into its own $4.8 million, 22,000-square-foot building at 6502 N.E. 47th Ave.

Phone: 360-693-0939.

Budget for fiscal 2013: $539,000; that will rise by approximately $300,000 next year as the Food Bank takes over a state Emergency Food Assistance contract with the Salvation Army and becomes the lead agency dealing with hunger in Clark County.

Staffing: Eight full-time positions; four administrators are on the Food Bank payroll, while four warehouse positions remain Salvation Army workers until they transition to the Food Bank on July 1. One quarter-time position manages the Heritage Farm, and there are three full-time AmeriCorps interns working on nutrition education, farming/gleaning and community outreach.

Plus: Lots of partnership and volunteer help, from three part-time “Partners in Careers” workers who staff the reception desk and do warehouse and custodial work, to nutrition/cooking educators from the Washington State University Clark County Extension, to many community volunteers.

On the Web: Clark County Food Bank

Three truckloads of golden sunshine — oranges — arrived earlier this year at the Clark County Food Bank. Officials there were delighted to let that sunshine in.

"We always had to say no to shipments in bulk because we didn't have the storage," said operations manager James Fitzgerald. No more. In fiscal 2012, Fitzgerald added, the Food Bank was able to accept nearly 1 million pounds of food it would have rejected in previous years — much of it fresh or frozen produce, from eggs to chickens and berries to beans.

In most recent months, Fitzgerald said, the Food Bank has broken records for incoming food, and is well on its way to besting fiscal 2012's total of 3.9 million pounds by nearly a million more in fiscal 2013 (ending June 30). Fitzgerald was even able to purchase a truckload of dry pasta; such a purchase would have been a pipe dream not long ago.

"It's been a really great year," executive director Alan Hamilton said of the period (well over a year now) since the Food Bank moved into a spacious, sophisticated new home and stepped up its game.

"It's a much bigger building, but it's a lot more than that, too," Hamilton said. "Its existence has allowed more food to move in and out, but it's also allowed us to build up other programs that we hope will be even more life-changing than that month's emergency food box."

The Clark County Food Bank is striving to be more than a way station for groceries and a distributor of food boxes. Hamilton and his small staff — there are just eight on the payroll, Hamilton included — are reaching out to the community in numerous new ways.

They're expanding the "Fresh Alliance" network of supermarkets and grocery stores that donate fresh produce nearing its expiration date, as well as recruiting skilled volunteers who do everything from raise crops to drive trucks. Ultimately, they're sending out not just healthy food but skills and knowledge to people who need to avoid cheap-but-not-nutritious foods and learn to cook for themselves.

That's in keeping with the Food Bank's declared mission not only to alleviate hunger, but "attack its root causes."

"We're taking some big leaps into the community, and one area that we have really grown into is prevention and education efforts," said Hamilton. "We're trying to grow the emergency food system but we're also trying to keep people from needing to enter the emergency food system."

Cooking with kids

"Anytime you have food in a program for kids, it's an instant success," said John Anderson, teen services director at the Boys & Girls Club in West Hazel Dell — the Clinton and Gloria John Clubhouse, next door to Hazel Dell Elementary School — which hosted a special meal and graduation ceremony a couple of Fridays ago. It marked the completion by nearly a dozen middle schoolers of a 10-week healthy cooking course at the Food Bank's teaching kitchen.

The class involved everything from beginning knife skills to the preparation from scratch of a number of easy dishes. In the end, families of these newly minted chefs were treated to a sit-down meal while their kids, decked out in paper hats and aprons, sailed back and forth between the reserved seats and their flavorful creations, which had been prepared at the Food Bank kitchen the day before and then reheated and hustled over by program manager Kristen Herron and AmeriCorps intern Audrey Williams.

The feast consisted of green and fruit salads, lasagna and — the "pièce de résistance" — moist, sweet banana chocolate-and-peanut-butter-chip muffins. Somehow or other, despite their new mastery of nutrition facts, many young chefs in the group dug right into the dessert course first.

"We didn't make this; the kids made this," announced Williams as the young cooking/wait staff busily served up their creations.

"I serve him all the time," grinned mom Thera Hart as 12-year-old Kaleb set out her meal. "It's nice to sit down and be served."

"The education behind this is fantastic," said Anderson. "This will help these kids have a healthier lifestyle."

Extra props go out to Kai Carterby, 11, who's already an enthusiastic home chef, his mom Karyn boasted. Karyn has tipped off Kai to the fact that girls dig guys who cook, but Kai seemed rather chagrined at that idea; he's more interested in the glory that will come with his own future television show: "Cooking with Kai."

The Food Bank's nutrition class "was awesome," said 11-year-old Daymian Wright, who hosted his mother and grandmother. "Getting all the ingredients together was the hardest part. Stirring was the easiest."

Similar cooking classes are under way or coming to constituencies including Spanish-speaking Vancouver Housing Authority residents, parents of children at lower-income elementary schools and a single-parents church group, Herron said. Most amazingly, she said, the Food Bank's "open enrollment" classes — not targeting any particular group — have proved very popular. Officials doubted anyone at all would sign up, Hamilton laughed, but those catch-all classes have become fun social outings for participants.

"I don't want to stop; let's keep going," one woman told Herron as the class finished up. "I like the people and it's my best meal of the week."

Herron said she'll try launching a supper club for those cooking-class graduates — so they can continue reinforcing those friendships as well as their new cooking skills. The supper club, of course, doesn't need the Food Bank — it could spin off on its own.

"Relationships happen over food," said Hamilton. "There is an optimism that's generated. There's an emotional shift that can affect other areas of a person's life."

More and better

Call it Food Bank 2.0. The previous "Stop Hunger" warehouse was 8,000 square feet, lacked adequate freezer and refrigerator capacity, and was leased. But a yearslong community and government push raised $4.8 million and built a permanent home for the Clark County Food Bank. The building opened in January 2012, and it allowed the Food Bank, a wing of the Vancouver Salvation Army since its founding, to establish itself as an independent nonprofit agency.

At 22,000 square feet, the Food Bank's new state-of-the-art facility is nearly three times the warehouse's size and includes many amenities it lacked: much more cooler and freezer space, more dry storage space, a large repacking room, convenient exterior bay doors, administrative offices and a big meeting room — which doubles as the teaching kitchen.

The Food Bank's governing board also hired the agency's first executive director, Hamilton, who in turn has hired a development director, reached out to local food-service businesses and energized whole new waves of volunteers. In addition to the reliable volunteer groups that have been coming around for years — churches, scouts, schools, service clubs — there's new interest from businesses looking to step up their community involvement and enhance their reputations; from licensed truckers with time on their hands; even from local farmers and landowners who want to put some extra acreage to use.

All of which presents great opportunities and big challenges, Hamilton said.

He met with 11 local farmers the night before this interview; they are all eager to grow additional crops for the Food Bank, either to harvest and deliver themselves or at least to have gleaners come remove.

"But they need assurances those gleaners will show up," Hamilton said. "They want to know it'll get into the hands of people -- otherwise it's too much effort."

The number of local "Fresh Alliance" grocery stores contributing good food that's nearing its expiration date has grown from 13 to 17, and Hamilton expects more. That creates a demand for drivers and vehicles, but volunteers still don't cover all the shifts and routes that need daily pickups.

"That can be a huge labor challenge for us, because those are non-optional pickups," said Hamilton. "The stores are counting on us to be there every day. But if you have to pay drivers every day, it gets really expensive."

Fresh Alliance food, he added, means meat, milk and fresh fruits and veggies — "the kind of food you can't get any other way." Hamilton likes to say the new Food Bank building has allowed clients to enjoy not only more food but better food.

"It's so much better," agreed Royalyn Whitley, the longtime director — a volunteer — of the food pantry at Clark County Adventist Community Services on St. Johns Road. That's one of 29 food pantries that make up the front line in the Food Bank's war on hunger.

"With all that storage space, cooler space, freezer space, they are able to handle so much more," she said. "They are accepting more fresh food and they're getting more markets online all the time. That's great for our clients. We used to visit the old warehouse once or twice a month. Now we make several trips a day."

Less of some things

While most everything is up, a couple of Food Bank statistics have dropped recently, Fitzgerald said.

One is federal government support. Regular distributions via the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Emergency Food Assistance Program topped out in the 2011 fiscal year, with 826,524 pounds; last year that amount fell to 590,268 pounds. Government support will continue to fall off this year, Fitzgerald said.

Plus, the Clark County Food Bank will no longer receive any nibbles from food drives sponsored by the Oregon Food Bank Network, based in Portland. In fiscal 2012, the Clark County Food Bank received 124,000 pounds of food, valued at $186,728, from Oregon food drives. In fiscal 2013, that number will be zero.

The Clark County Food Bank is still a member of the OFB Network, Hamilton said, but since it's become the lead agency dealing with hunger in Clark County, food drives south of the river are now out-of-bounds.

"It's a growing pain," said Hamilton. "It's a deficit we'll have to make up."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.