And Then It Was Gone

BY Jules Norwood

In early June when school lets out for the summer classrooms and hallways throughout the state will empty in a rush of students heading home for almost three months of fun in the sun — but for the thousands of students who receive a meal or two every day through free or reduced lunch programs going home to an empty cupboard is no vacation.

In the four-county area served by the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina’s (FBCENC) Wilmington branch — Brunswick Columbus New Hanover and Pender counties — more than 50 000 of our neighbors are at risk of hunger living at or below the poverty level and 30 percent of them are children. Spread out to the 34-county coverage area of the FBCENC says public relations manager Christy Simmons and the children at risk of hunger would fill the basketball arenas at UNC Duke ECU N.C. Central N.C. State and UNCW twice over. Almost a thousand full school buses would still be waiting outside.

During the summer demand soars at food pantries as the parents of those children struggle to meet their additional nutritional needs. Unfortunately the same time of year is a down time for donations at food banks and pantries.

“The families are needing a lot more food because the kids aren’t getting fed in school ” says Tommy Taylor outreach and development coordinator for the Wilmington branch. “And donations of food are always down in the summer. … The summer is when we’re really facing some challenges and this year we’ve already started planning for a big event.”

Taylor hopes a renewed focus on the month of June will help offset the summer slump. To that end FBCENC is planning signature events in each of its branch cities. In Wilmington a wine tasting at Thalian Hall is scheduled for Wednesday June 18 from 7-9 p.m. The event will feature live entertainment by Jimmy Gatlin hors d’oeuvres and a wine tasting courtesy of the Wilmington Wine Shoppe. The event is part of Kids Summer Stock a push to restock the shelves of the food bank during the difficult summer months.

“That’s the big event we’re setting up but that entire month we’re looking for everyone in the community whether it’s a church or a business to do food drives ” Taylor explains. “We want the whole community to focus on that month; whatever organization they’re involved with to encourage them to do a food drive that month to bring food in or if they can’t do that they can volunteer or donate money.”

The food bank he says is a very efficient organization working behind the scenes to coordinate resources for about 90 partner agencies in the four-county area which operate 49 food pantries 11 after-school programs seven group homes six shelters five sheltered workshops four soup kitchens and three day cares. “Every dollar we get we can turn into $8 worth of food or roughly four meals ” he says. “Ninety-seven cents of every dollar goes into food programs.”

All told the Wilmington branch distributes about 3.5 million pounds of food each year to its partner agencies which include Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard Tileston Outreach Health Clinic the Salvation Army Good Shepherd and the Boys and Girls Club. “Our mission is to harness and supply resources so no one goes hungry ” Taylor says. “We’re harnessing and supplying resources to these other organizations but we’re really not as visible in the community as some of our partners.”

The quantity of food distributed by the Wilmington branch has more than doubled in the last five years and the FBCENC as a whole distributed more than 32.6 million pounds of food during fiscal year 2006-2007 making it the eighth-largest food bank in the country out of a national network of more than 200 emergency food distribution centers. “This is a telling indication of the incredible need in our 34 counties ” says Simmons.

All that food has to come from somewhere; in the four counties served by the Wilmington branch much of it comes from Wake County Taylor says and he wants to change that. “We’re working hard to make sure that awareness is spread and that this community pulls together to support what we do instead of depending on Wake County to foot the bill. They’ll keep sending food of course but I don’t want to have to depend on citizens from another area to support this operation.”

The FBCENC is part of a national network called America’s Second Harvest and roughly 30 percent of its food comes from national corporate donors. Local food donors like Food Lion Lowes Foods Pepsi-Cola Frito-Lay and Sam’s Club contribute an additional percentage of the food supply. Finally local food drives account for about 4 percent of the supply. “(The local food drive donations) are a crucial part because it’s a lot of those canned goods that we need ” Taylor says.

The 12 500-square-foot warehouse in Wilmington has a full-time staff of only three with one part-time staff member. Volunteers help with everything from painting to loading and unloading food and staffing direct distributions. Above and beyond its support of local agencies the food bank stands ready to assist as a first responder in the event of a natural disaster.

The food bank faces unique challenges as increasing fuel costs drive up the price of food and last year’s drought meant fresh produce had to be shipped in from outside the service area — at great cost. The same factors that have driven up operating costs at the food bank have led to increased need in the community.

“Quite honestly the need is just spiking all over because of gas prices which affect food prices — shipping food packaging food growing food ” Taylor says. Many of those who utilize the services of the food bank’s partner agencies are choosing between food and things like rent utilities and medicine he adds. “It’s daunting and it’s more likely that it’s getting worse than better. It’s not because we haven’t been stepping to the plate and it’s not really that the community isn’t; it’s just the factors right now are tougher for everybody.”

The food bank has created innovative programs to address the community’s needs including a Kids Café that provides meals for children at risk and a backpack program that sends food home with the kids who need it.

“That’s one of my favorite programs but again it worries me in the summer because I know these kids are going home to empty pantries ” Taylor says. “The food pantries really need more because you’ve got low-income people that are having to feed their kids more. We’re going to have to get more food out to them this summer and every summer. This is the first event but we want it to be an annual event so that every summer we can meet the need. I’m determined to show these kids that the community cares about them because I don’t think otherwise we can expect them to grow up and care about the community.”

For tickets to the June 18 event at Thalian Hall contact the box office at 343-3664. For more information about donations or volunteering contact the Wilmington branch at 251-1465.

You don’t have to cross the bridge to get involved

Right here on Wrightsville Beach at the Little Chapel on the Boardwalk is the 2nd Loaf Ministry. During the summer months this outreach allows both locals and visitors to donate food to The Good Shepherd Ministry’s soup kitchen as well as to its Second Helpings program for needy families in our community. This year will be 2nd Loaf’s seventh summer of service and as always the collection tent will stand in the church parking lot accepting all nonperishable as well as most perishable foods each Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon beginning May 26 and continuing through Labor Day. Church-member volunteers of all ages will man the booth offering water sunscreen and a “doggy cool-off pool” to all passers-by. Donated items may also be dropped at the church office Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and from 2-4 p.m. The generosity of Wrightsville Beach residents has been witnessed time and time again: Last year more than 300 pounds of food and other items were donated as well as monetary donations. So once again please make a point to stop by the tent this summer. Your kindness makes a huge impact in the lives of less-fortunate children and families in our community.