Shoppers cast discriminating stares at ingredients listed on slightly crushed cereal boxes before adding them to their carts. Around the corner they stopped at the pile of red potatoes; “produce of USA” read the bags, moist and flapping in the breeze of a fan. Most shoppers settled on two bags, five pounds each, though a few families grabbed as many as 10. Sean Ross spread out the bags and peered through the plastic for signs of rotting. The manager of the Central Missouri Food Bank Pantry worried that the potatoes wouldn’t last through the weekend and posted a note above the pile inviting customers to take as many as they wanted.
Soon to be cooked, sliced and buttered, these potatoes—and another 42,000 pounds like them—found their way into the shopping carts of mid-Missouri’s low-income residents because of efforts made by the Central Missouri Food Bank.
The business of feeding the hungry
Thinking about hunger in the United States means confronting inconsistencies in our culture. Enough food is produced for Americans to consume nearly double the daily 2,000 calories recommended by the FDA, writes Marion Nestle, nutritionist and author of “What to Eat.” Many Americans are either overweight or obese because, in part, of that surplus. Still, according to a November U.S. government report, about 35 million Americans at times don’t know where their next meal will come from. In the Midwest, CMFB reaches about 80,000 of those people each month, a 25 percent jump from two years ago, and by the charity’s estimates, another 20,000 people still need help.
CMFB began as a class project at Columbia College in 1981, and within 18 months the organization was distributing food to 15 pantries and food centers. Now bolstered by partnerships with local retailers and carriers, CMFB serves 143 agencies in 33 counties in central and northeast Missouri.
One of a handful of food banks that don’t charge agencies for food, CMFB earned an excess of almost a half million dollars in 2005. Part of the reason is its tight operating budget; less than 2 percent of it goes to management and fund-raising fees. More than 60 percent of CMFB’s revenue comes from donations made by local individuals and businesses.
“Foodbanking makes good business sense,” said Jessica Spanglehour, director of development. Each dollar donated can provide 15 meals, she said, and companies can earn tax deductions while saving on the costs of dumping surplus food.
Some of CMFB’s food arrives through local food drives and retail donations. Walgreens, for example, donates unsold Halloween candy to the food bank, and local grocery stores and bakeries leave donations each morning for pickup by a CMFB driver.
Half of CMFB’s food—about 9 million pounds—comes through America’s Second Harvest, a national hunger relief program. Second Harvest’s acquisition program lets food banks bid on products with points awarded based on area poverty levels. At CMFB, this program is known as Foodbay.
A balancing act
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Don Moore’s pale-blue eyes darted across the Foodbay screen as he hunted for attractive lots. The food solicitor at CMFB had 81,000 credits to spend on Foodbay. He stopped at a load of Pop Tarts.
“You can’t just draw the line on nutrition and nothing else. You’ve got to strike a balance between taste and nutrition,” Moore said. “You show me a 6-year-old kid with an 8-pound roast in the fridge, and I’ll show you a hungry kid. You show me that same kid with a box of Pop Tarts in the cupboard, and I’ll show you a kid who’s not hungry.”
The Pop Tarts were stored in a warehouse in Pikeville, Ky., 617 miles away. Moore called two carriers. Neither had trucks passing through the area. Transportation is the one expense Foodbay requires agencies to finance, and finding carriers with trucks close to the warehouses keeps costs low. Moore passed on the Pop Tarts.
Much of the food on Foodbay is donated by major companies. The items usually represent surplus or unsellable inventory. Sometimes the packing is damaged; other times the food has failed quality control for lacking an ingredient.
Foodbay is its own market, with items valued differently than they are in grocery stores. Laundry detergent, soap and paper products, for example, demand the highest prices on the network; the reason: those items aren’t covered by food stamps.
Moore stopped at a second lot offering several hundred cases of toilet paper. The location looked right, and he bid 2,222 credits.
“If God wants us to get that toilet paper at that price, we’ll get it,” Moore said.
Moore said he conserves his points and tries to bid on items that escape the notice of other buyers. “I’m playing on what other food bankers are going to do. It’s part art and part science.”
He stopped at a load of potatoes in Monte Vista, Colo. Anticipating little interest in them from other food banks, he bid zero. A moment passed, and Moore, rocking in his chair, reconsidered his bid. “We really need those potatoes,” he said. He increased it to 192 credits. At noon Moore checked Foodbay. He didn’t win the toilet paper, but he did secure the potatoes—42,000 pounds.
Probably the best deal Moore ever struck was on a truck full of pantyhose. Two years ago a manufacture decided to change its packaging and needed to clear the old inventory. The company took the tax write-off; Moore took the pantyhose. Moore was charged only with the cost of transportation and the unloading of the truck.
“Not one cubic inch of space was empty,” Moore said of the truck. “There must have been a quarter million dollars of pantyhose.”
Women swarmed to the pantyhose once it hit agency shelves. At the Columbia Food Pantry, two corner stands were stocked with 12 different colors. For three months crowds formed around the shelves as women called out colors and passed packages to friends. Pantyhose can be an inaccessible luxury to women barely able to afford food and housing expenses. Now they could dress up for work or job interviews.
“I’m a person all about possibilities,” Moore said.
Faith in volunteers
The volunteer schedule is full through December. Some days in the volunteer room, an area partitioned off from the warehouse floor, crews separate mashed potatoes or hot dogs from industrial-sized vats into portions that can fit into a refrigerator. Cranberry granola bars missing the cranberries are labeled with the correct ingredients. Eight-year-old girls, outfitted with hairnets, screech that they look like lunch ladies while filling plastic bags with Kit-Kats.
Although CMFB doesn’t change its focus during the holidays, it does accommodate feelings of charity sparked from the season. But, as Jessica Spanglehour points out, people are just as hungry in April as they are in November.
Responsible for fund-raising and public relations, Spanglehour’s biggest challenge is sharing the story of hunger. “Hunger is really hidden,” she said, “because it’s not a problem with a face. It’s a dignity issue.”
From her work at a food bank in Oklahoma City, she has learned not to ask kids for Christmas lists; the basic necessities on the list can be depressing. “They’re thinking about milk and meat and socks and a blanket,” she said. “Very few kids asked for toys, but they did ask for a toothbrush and toothpaste.”
Although CMFB remains secular, Peggy Kirkpatrick, the executive director, calls their work a ministry, a description that echoes through the halls. A Baptist preacher directs a Bible study one day each week. For some people, faith led them to this work, while for others it has become a way to cope with their proximity to penury. “You work as hard as you can to fix the problem but know in the end that there’s a higher power that will take care of it,” said Spanglehour. “If you dwell on those stories, they can overwhelm you.”
The unpredictable harvest
The journey of the potatoes picked up in the CMFB warehouse six days after Moore made his winning bid on Foodbay. The warehouse crew waited. Forklifts were parked in a corner, and 18-wheel rigs stood in loading docks. “Come on, taters!” Fresh shouts overlapped echoes in a fugue of impatience rising in the near-empty building.
With its warehouse located in the hub of Columbia’s industrial activity, CMFB measures its operations by pounds rather than dollars and ritualistically weighs everything that enters. The warehouse floor can store more than a million pounds of processed food at a time.
Along the perimeter, pallets of food were wrapped and ready to ship. Purple barrels brimmed with donations from food drives. Fourteen pallets of a boxed dinner waited for distribution; a typo on the box instructed the meal to simmer for 15, rather than 17, minutes.
Still, there was a gaping hole in the center. Few staff members could remember the warehouse being more vacant. Moore had secured 14 truckloads of food from distant regions; the first scheduled to arrive carried the potatoes from Colorado.
“Come on, taters!”
A phone rang in the warehouse office. The potatoes would be late. After hauling them more than 850 miles, the semi broke down 15 miles from Columbia; engine problems eventually caused a four-hour delay. Once they arrived, the CMFB and other agencies had already reserved half of the load.
The CMFB Pantry
CMFB contributes more food to the CMFB Pantry than any to other agency. In 2005, the pantry pulled in 2.7 million pounds of food and represented about 15 percent CMFB’s total distributions. Customers can visit the pantry once a month; the service is intended to be supplemental, not a sole source of food.
Each day Ross calls the food bank to select from its offerings. After Thanksgiving, he had selected one of the last pallets of the Colorado potatoes. Randy Griggs, assistant pantry coordinator, steered his forklift into the cooler room, where six black crates of lettuce were stacked seven feet high among bags of apples and racks of cheese and eggs. The potatoes were the heaviest of Griggs’s load—2,000 pounds per pallet—and the first to go on the truck.
Workers rolled carts of hot dog rolls, hamburger buns and loaves bread to the freezer. A dusty red pickup truck arrived, its bed filled with venison processed during the weekend—hunters’ donations to be stored in the freezer.
Griggs loaded the truck with more food and took his seat in the cab. He said potatoes create so much heat that unless a truck has vents, a driver must stop every 500 miles to let the cargo cool. The air above the potatoes can reach up to 2,000 degrees, in some cases even starting fires.
Fortunately, this trip wasn’t far. Waiting at the warehouse’s loading dock, Griggs could see from his cab an MFA storage silo, a skyscraper of Central Missouri and a symbol of America’s remarkable capacity to produce food. Cargo secure, the truck rolled back to the food pantry.