The Manna Truck is a mobile pantry the Food Bank of Southwest Georgia uses to deliver food and drinks to low income areas throughout their service area. This program allows agencies and sponsors the opportunity to distribute 5,000 pounds of food and drinks to those in need of food assistance.
The statistics are frightening but true: 21 percent of Southwest Georgians live at or below poverty level and 40 percent are at risk of not having enough food to eat at some point throughout the year. But thanks to the efforts of the Food Bank of Southwest Georgia, 45,000 people in this region – nearly half children – went to bed with full stomachs this year.
To make that happen, nearly four million pounds of food was distributed to needy people across a 20 county region served by the Food Bank, said President/CEO Brett Kirkland. The organization is assisted by some 280 agencies, including churches and 501(c)3 organizations, that either cook and feed people onsite or distribute the food to families through local food pantries.
Begun in the early 80s as part of The Salvation Army, the Food Bank has since become an independent organization and is governed by a local board of directors. Working with an $8 million budget, Kirkland came aboard two years ago and juggles responsibilities with a skeleton paid staff of 11 and the weekly assistance of 10 to 15 volunteers, including those sent from the Dougherty County Jail and The Anchorage, a men’s drug and alcohol recovery program.
“We work so efficiently,” said the mission-minded Kirkland, regarding the struggle for funds. “When you look at the food and the funds donated to us, less than five percent goes to administration and fund raising costs. That’s unheard of (in non-profits).”
The bulk of funding for the Food Bank comes through the United States Department of Agriculture. Additional dollars come from churches, businesses, grants and private donations. In addition, donations of food and cleaning and hygiene items from area businesses and industries are also in the mix.
The 50,000-square-foot Food Bank warehouse is stocked with canned goods, fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables, frozen meat and other items. Additional offerings include diapers, baby wipes and cleaning and paper products donated by Procter & Gamble and an assortment of miscellaneous items donated by Target, Wal-Mart and Harvey’s.
“Wal-Mart has started a zero waste program and they’re trying not to throw anything away,” shared Kirkland. “If they can’t sell it, they donate it.”
The USDA Farm Bill provides funding for the bulk of canned items, and 200,000 to 300,000 pounds of fresh produce is provided by area farmers. Additional produce comes via the Society of St. Andrew in Tifton, a gleaning ministry that scours the fields once farmers have harvested.
“We can’t take all that they offer because of the volume and cost of transporting (fresh produce) that needs to turn quickly,” said Kirkland.
Qualifying agencies can “shop” two ways, either by coming in to the warehouse by appointment Monday through Thursday to select their items from the shelves or by ordering online and picking up the items gathered from the warehouse by staff and volunteers. Among the larger Albany clients are The Lord’s Pantry, Love Thy Neighbor and The Rescue Mission.
A new program adopted by the Food Bank this year has made a tremendous impact in Southwest Georgia. Since spring, the Mobile Pantry Program has distributed 600,000 pounds of food to families throughout the service area, with needy families receiving a 25-pound box of food staples.
“We stay until we give them all away,” said Kirkland of the boxes distributed during 4-8 Mobile Pantry stops each month.
Additional distribution is done through the Backpack Program, which sends nutritional food and snack items home for the weekend with children at risk of going hungry, and the Kids Café, which serves hot meals Monday through Thursday to children enrolled in the Jefferson Street Boys & Girls Club after school program.
The Food Bank is also stocked through food drives and programs such as Hunters for the Hungry and Venison for the Hungry, the latter a program of First Baptist Albany. Through these efforts the Food Bank obtains around 2,500 pounds of ground venison each year for about $4,000 in processing fees.
Hunters can drop off donated deer with processors at Country Jack’s in Lee County or Bob Miles in Terrell County. The Food Bank pays processing fees of about $1.50 a pound.
“What would be really nice is if people would drop off a deer and a check for $50 or $60 to cover the processing for us,” offered Kirkland.
Among the most unusual donations received by the Food Bank was a recent delivery of some 14,000 pounds of alligator leg quarters – with the foot attached. Surprisingly, agencies are taking the gator to distribute through their food pantries, said Kirkland.
In an ideal world, Kirkland dreams of having three additional full-time staff, owning their own warehouse facility – complete with commercial kitchen – and being able to update some antiquated technology that compromises some of the organization’s abilities.
In Albany and beyond, feeding the hungry gains attention and creates additional need during the holidays, as many agencies put forth extra efforts to ensure that even needy families can enjoy holiday meals.
“January, February, March and summers are tough times,” said Kirkland. “There are still hungry people out there, but the focus is lost in the community during those times. Hunger is 365 days a year, not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
On a positive note, a successful direct mail campaign has resulted in more private donations this year, said Kirkland.
“We’re very grateful that the community has stepped in to support us.”
Food Bank of Southwest Georgia is one of eight Feeding America food banks located across the state. For more information or to make a donation or volunteer your time, contact the Food Bank of Southwest Georgia at 883-5959 or visit them www.foodbank-swga.org.
By K.K. Snyder