Field & Fork Network

Behind the Scenes at the Food Bank of WNY

In Feeding the Community on January 14, 2010 at 12:10 pm

The warehouse at the Food Bank of WNY

A few weeks ago the local fire department was hosting a holiday food drive. I received a flyer in the mail asking me to leave a bag of non-perishables out that would be collected for the Food Bank of Western New York.  Of course I had completely forgotten about it the day that I heard the sirens of the fire truck coming toward my house. I rushed to the pantry to pull out some cans of diced tomatoes I kept on hand. I felt a surge of good feelings as I put my cans out, and thought of the wonderful smells of simmering tomatoes (pasta sauce, chili, etc) that would greet the recipient of my donation. I wondered for a moment what journey my cans would take, but I had faith that the people of the Food Bank would safely bring the food to those in need.

Most of us have heard of the Food Bank of Western New York, but I bet few of us know what actually happens there. When I think of a food bank I have a vague impression of cans of food being transferred from donation bins, and ultimately ending up as some needy person’s dinner. But what exactly goes on at the Food Bank, where does donated food come from, where does it go, and who receives it? This morning Lisa Tucker and I got a behind the scenes look at the happenings at the WNY Food Bank.

After a donation is picked up it, along with its fellow donated items, makes a short drive to 91 Holt St in Buffalo. Hopefully the driver has been there before, because if you don’t know the exact location of the Food Bank it’s easy to miss. The truck then backs up to the loading dock of a 50, 610 square foot warehouse. The loading dock is a busy place, people are taking calls, filling orders, organizing, and picking up orders. Along one wall are stacks of orders waiting to be shipped out. On the opposite side is a wall of coolers containing perishable baked goods, produce, and dairy.  Forklifts zoom around moving pallets of goods. Although food drive items are an important part of donations, the majority of food comes from food manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. In addition, grants allow the Food Bank to purchase food.

Wayne, Food Bank employee and ruler of 'Wayne's World'

The food drive items then make their way to the back of the warehouse to be sorted. The sorting room is lovingly referred to as Wayne’s World, named after the Food Bank employee Wayne, who is in charge of sorting through the donation bins.  Wayne is sort of a sorting expert, and is in charge of instructing others how to do it properly. If your donation has passed muster (it is edible for humans, not expired, not obviously defective, not on the list of recalls), then it moves into a bin of similar items to be stacked in the warehouse. You would be surprised the sort of things that end up in donation bins that are not edible for humans. As we talked with Wayne, I could see broken dog biscuits that had somehow ended up in the mix.

The main section of the warehouse is filled with stacks of canned, boxed, and bottled non-perishables. There is also an 18,000 square foot freezer containing frozen perishables. My donation has made it into the Food Bank, but now what? We wait for a call from a local service agency. These include soup kitchens, food pantries, and emergency shelters in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, and Cattaraugus counties. The Food Bank does not directly deal with individuals, but is rather a bridge between available food sources, and agencies serving the needy. Over 400 member agencies have access to the list of available food. They place an order, it is filled, moved to the loading area, and is picked up. Once the donations have made it to the service agencies, the food is distributed to people in need.

The Food Bank of Western New York helps serve an incredible 97,000 people a month, 39% of whom are children, and 11% are seniors.  We asked our tour guide, Polla Milligan, if there has been an increase in the number of needy people with the downturn in the economy.  She replied that the numbers in the city have remained constant, while there is an increase in suburban families using the resources of the Food Bank.

Polla Milligan in the Food Bank's Community Kitchen

The Food Bank isn’t just a warehouse. It’s a group of dedicated people working to educate the public about hunger here in WNY, and the importance of healthy eating. To spread the message of proper nutrition, Polla Milligan heads out to local schools with her unique puppet show. Puppets really get the kid’s attention, and are a non-intimidating way to tell children that they should pay more attention to what they eat. Polla empowers children by making them aware of the food agencies where they and their families can get access to healthy food.

The Food Bank furthermore educates the public by offering cooking workshops at their spacious community test kitchen. The Good Cookin’ class for adults focuses on menu planning, budgeting, basic meal prep skills, and nutrition. The Kids in the Kitchen Program teaches kids how to prepare simple snacks and meals. This program has recently partnered with their Garden Project, so children can have the experience of harvesting and preparing fresh food.

Leaving the Food Bank earlier today, I was impressed with what I had seen. The volume of food that they distribute is remarkable, and their mission is admirable. I found myself pondering two things that I had heard. First, while we tend to think of donating food during the holidays, people are hungry year round. The summer is an especially low donation time for the Food Bank. Second the amount of fresh produce being donated has declined sharply in the past five years. It is hard to promote healthy eating, when you don’t have the ingredients to make it happen.  Since summer is when fresh produce is at its peak, it only makes sense that more partnerships with local farms will help the Food Bank to further its mission.

The Food Bank hosts a number of fund raising events throughout the year. Coming up this February 4th is the Sweet Charity event, offering dessert, champagne, wine tasting, a silent auction and more. It will be held at Asbury Hall at 341 Delaware Ave, Buffalo. The Food Bank also welcomes donations and volunteers.

posted by Caitlin Henzler

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