FLINT, Michigan—The enormity of this operation is hard to imagine.
Built from a small organization working out of donated warehouse space in 1981, the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan now serves 22 counties (more than any other food bank in Michigan), built 100,000 square feet of warehouse space, operates a fleet of nearly 30 vehicles, employs more than 100.
It works with 400 partner agencies to supply churches, soup kitchens, food pantries and schools with food. All told, the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan provides 330,000 people with more than 25 million pounds of food annually.
“Our goal and mission is to provide services and meet the needs of people in our local communities,” says Cathy Blankenship, vice president of Development and Communications for the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. Each agency that relies on the food bank has individual needs for their clients. No two pantries are the same, requiring different types and amounts of food.
The food bank makes it possible for each to remain unique—efficiently.
“Without the food bank, without us being able to be this large warehousing system, they would have very limited product available to them,” says Blankenship. In addition to budget for food and availability of a larger selection of goods, the food bank provides storage, transport and quick delivery.
That fast delivery combined with their massive reach and deep connections is the key to providing families with fresh, healthy food—not just not just boxes and cans of nonperishable items.
“A local agency couldn’t do that. They couldn’t go in and pick that up and have the refrigeration system, the storage space, to be able to keep track of it. And then turn it over so that it stays fresh and gets utilized before an expiration date,” says Blankenship.
In addition to donations from 76 retail stores, the food bank also has substantial buying power. For every dollar donated to the food bank, it is able to provide six meals.
Over its 36 years, the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan has a laundry list of honors including the Excellence in Food Banking award and named the No. 1 food bank in the nation by Feeding America in 2002.
Looking at the logistics, coordination, efficiencies, and massive warehousing operation—it’s easy to be fixates on the business of the food bank.
Then, you meet Jacquece Dent, 38, of Flint. She’s volunteering at the food bank for the first time, assembling boxes that will provide a special meal for the holidays. Dent is one of more than 8,400 volunteers who donate more than 60,000 hours to the food bank annually.
“I like giving back… I wanted to see how it all operates,” she says as she closes and tapes a box filled with stuffing and cranberry sauce and a few other special treats.
And, it’s easy to see that inside that box is more than food. It is family, comfort, and happy memories waiting to be made.
“We depend, heavily, on the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan,” says Pam Jeffery, 60 of Flint, the director of operations at Helping Individuals Succeed (HIS) Ministry, which helps 300-400 families per month. HIS Ministry places orders to the food bank each month for what its families need—so there is less waste and it is able to better serve its clients.
Clients like Mike Wright, 57, of Flint.
“It helps the strain be a little less,” says Wright who has struggled since an injury in 2000. The food provides him with sustenance and a bit of financial relief because it helps him be able to pay some of his other bills. Wright also volunteers at HIS Ministries. He’s been there for several years doing warehousing tasks, loading and unloading trucks, and moving goods.
“I plan my week around that. … I treat it as a job,” Wright says. Through his work there, he is also able to see how much impact the food bank has. “I see the people that were in as much need as I was.”
The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan opened its Hunger Solution Center in 2015 after raising $5.2 million to fund its construction. The center enabled the food bank to triple its volunteer work areas, double its overall capacity including storage and truck accessibility, and increase fresh produce handing from 4 million to 12 million pounds.
Not only does the new Hunger Solution Center provide physical space, it provides opportunities for nutritional education in a demonstration kitchen, repackaging of bulk foods for individual consumption, and preparing ready-to-eat meals. It is the ultimate example of how the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan is so much more than a food bank. Last year, it delivered 5 million prepared meals out of its commercial kitchen.
This is in addition to many other special services provided by the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan to serve the needs of the community—including backpack programs that provide children with food over the weekends and summer months, distribution of diapers donated by The Flint Diaper Bank, senior grocery box programs, and serving a critical role in the warehousing and distribution of water in response to the Flint Water Crisis.
“During the holiday time… we are hit with a huge need because of Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Blankenship. “Utility bills are going up. Dollars are stretched tight. More people need help right now.”
And, more people are going hungry.
It truly takes a village for the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. Along with the donations of food, some retail locations sell ornaments and collect donations for the food bank (including Kroger, WalMart, and VG’s).
Before the holidays, during the holidays, after the holidays, the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan is there because of the support it receives from so many.
About 30 to 40 percent of the food coming to and from the food bank is purchased to ensure all who are in need are fed. This year, the food bank has spent $10.5 million on transporting, warehousing and purchasing food.
“Forty percent (of recipients) in the last thirty days said ‘there were times when I was hungry and didn’t know when I was able to afford to get my next meal,’” says Blankenship. “They don’t always know where their next meal is going to come from.”
To find out more about the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, www.fbem.org.