When Second Harvest Food Bank President and CEO Jaynee Day joined the nonprofit 24 years ago, she hoped she would be out of a job in a few years.
“When I came to work here, my board told me, ‘Jaynee, in five or 10 years we won’t need this organization,’ ” explained Day. “ ‘We’re going to eliminate hunger in this community.’ I said, ‘Great, that’s wonderful!’ Twenty-four years later, that hasn’t happened.”
Which is not to say that Second Harvest has not had an extraordinary impact on our community for the past 34 years. Initially envisioned as a central distribution center to help companies, groups and individuals provide food for hungry residents of Middle Tennessee, the food bank is now one of the largest and most comprehensive food distribution centers in the nation. In addition to providing day-to-day services, they’re also one of the first responders when disaster — such as Nashville’s 2010 flood — strikes.
Last year, Second Harvest distributed nearly 20 million pounds of food through more than 400 partner agencies in 46 counties in Middle Tennessee. But with cutbacks in federal programs and the rising cost of food and operational expenses, food banks across the country are feeling the pinch. According to Tasha Kennard, vice president of marketing and communication at Second Harvest, federal funding is down 9 percent this year.
“We’ve been very dependent upon that USDA product over the past four years, and right now the surplus is going down,” Kennard said. “As the economic stimulus dollars aren’t available from the federal government anymore, food banks across the country are dealing with less commodities to distribute and less stimulus dollars to put back into their programs.”
To keep these programs in existence — programs that many communities nationwide have come to rely upon, including our own — food banks need donors to make up the difference.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Davidson County, 24.7 percent of adults are obese — an additional 37.4 percent are overweight — and 29 percent of adolescents are overweight. Statistics might appear to suggest a large gap between overweight and hungry residents, but in reality, these issues are often intertwined, as both conditions reflect a lack of access to healthy food.
What is widening is the income inequality gap: A report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute recently stated that incomes for the bottom 20 percent of Tennessee households fell 12 percent over the past decade, while the top 20 percent saw an 8.6 percent increase. With less money to spend on food, lower-income households are forced to make decisions based on what food they can afford, rather than what is healthiest. Many people are forced to choose among urgent necessities: paying for rent and utilities; buying food, medicine and other supplies for their families.
And when funds run out before food reaches the table, people turn to food banks like Second Harvest for help.
While there are other organizations in town — such as the Nashville Rescue Mission — that provide shelter, food and treatment for residents struggling with issues such as homelessness or addiction, Second Harvest’s sole mission is to feed hungry people in our community. Ultimately, they work to eradicate hunger on a local level. Food banks like Second Harvest serve individuals and families who can be classified as “food insecure.”
“You don’t think about hunger that way,” Kennard said. “You think about what you see in Third World countries, where people are starving. People right here in America — more than 50 million people — are struggling every single day in a country that has plenty to give. There is no reason why this should be an issue in our country.”
“Food insecurity does not mean that they’re starving, it means that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” explained Shannon Traeger, a spokeswoman for Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief charity. “Food insecurity is a term defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it’s lack of access to enough food for a healthy and active lifestyle.”
Feeding America works with more than 200 food banks across the nation. I met up with Traeger recently when she traveled from Feeding America’s Chicago headquarters to Nashville to attend a media event at Second Harvest featuring the country band Little Big Town. As we sat at a conference table, the band members were in the next room, immersed in a Facebook chat with fans. Earlier in the day, they had helped pack food backpacks for children throughout Middle Tennessee.
“Right now, in America, more than 50 million Americans are food insecure, including more than one in five children, or 17 million children,” Traeger said. She cited a study from 2011 called “Map the Meal Gap,” which provided data to track food insecurity geographically in the general population, and specifically in children.
“That helps food banks realize how we can expand our resources in local communities to tackle those problems,” Kennard explained. “It gives us data to the ZIP code level, which we’ve never had available to us before. If you were to call me and ask what’s going on in Smith County, I’ve got that data now.”
The study, which can be viewed at feedingamerica.org, was sponsored by the ConAgra Food Foundation. Genevieve Mazzeo, public relations and social media representative for ConAgra Foods, explained that the study allows food banks to be more efficient with their services. “They can very specifically target what they are trying to achieve, to really have an impact in the specific counties that they serve,” she said. “So they’re not casting a wide net; they’re able to really hone in on their population and the needs within their specific service area and meet those needs.”
In Middle Tennessee, children are at the most risk for hunger, Kennard said, but senior citizens are a vulnerable group, too. AARP reports that 16 percent of seniors in Tennessee are food insecure, and many struggle with nutrition-related illnesses such as diabetes. According to Feeding America’s “Hunger in America 2010” study, 30 percent of households with seniors have to choose between buying food or necessities such as medicine, and rent or mortgage payments.
Hunger also disproportionally affects minorities, with 25.1 percent of African-American households and 26.2 percent of Latino households nationwide designated as food insecure. A surprising at-risk demographic is college students: Locally, Tennessee State University provides a food pantry to students in need. The Tiger Pantry Food Bank allows students to place orders once a month to supplement their meal plans with staples such as canned food, boxed cereal, soup and personal grooming products.
Just as Feeding America assists food banks like Second Harvest, consumer and commercial food giant ConAgra donates funds and products to Feeding America. “We work so that Feeding America can, in turn, work with folks like Second Harvest to distribute to people in the community who actually need it,” Mazzeo said.
Feeding America works with more than 61,000 agencies through food banks across the country, feeding 37 million Americans each year. But with 50 million Americans classified as food insecure, there are a lot of people who aren’t getting access to the food they need. And many of those people live within our county lines.
Across the country, food banks are experiencing huge increases in demand for emergency food assistance. In Middle Tennessee, demand is up 18 percent over a year ago, despite improvements in the economy. While unemployment overall might be moving in a more favorable direction, rural communities in particular are still dealing with job loss and a higher ratio of unemployed or underemployed individuals.
According to Day, people in Middle Tennessee come to Second Harvest for a variety of reasons, such as unemployment, underemployment (trying to live on less pay while expenses remain the same or increase), not receiving a check in a timely matter, or an unexpected emergency or bill.
“When it’s cold like it is now, if you’re a senior or have small children, do you pay that bill or do you put food on the table?” Day posited. “We hear a lot of parents say, ‘I’m going to pay the bill, and I’ll just skip meals so my children can eat.’ Or children will say, ‘I didn’t eat this morning because it wasn’t my turn.’ That shouldn’t be happening in this country. It’s deplorable. And we can do something about it — there’s enough food in this country to make this happen. There’s enough dollars that we can generate across the country to feed hungry people.”
And as the nation slowly recovers from the economic downturn, there is a misperception that nonprofits like Second Harvest aren’t as needy as they had been. But food banks are seeing demand continue to rise, while resources and federal aid continue to diminish. “Right now, we’re in that place where people think things are getting better, so the funding is starting to go down,” Kennard said. “We’re raising about 60 percent of our dollars to be able to run this food bank every day.”
While food costs rise with general inflation, this summer’s crops took a beating from severe weather, driving costs even higher. As the cornerstone for a network of nonprofit agencies — such as soup kitchens, low-income day care centers or senior citizen centers — Second Harvest shoulders the economic burden for agencies that depend upon the food bank’s resources to carry out their own programs in their respective communities.
“Second Harvest was founded on trying to meet the daily emergency food needs of citizens of this county,” Day explained. “There were lots of different groups that were trying to do it, and we all came together, and to this day we still provide that service for this community.”
Day said there are 17 satellite sites — the Martha O’Bryan Center, St. Luke’s and the Salvation Army, for example — where individuals and families can go to get an emergency food box that will last them approximately three to five days. The food box has a variety of nonperishable and perishable items such as milk, butter, fresh fruits and vegetables. She stressed that the program is only an emergency food box program and not a permanent feeding program, the kind that’s designed to provide food services to those who need it three times every six months or six times a year.
“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing across America is that we’re the new normal,” Days aid. “People are having to utilize us every single month. Right now, we don’t have enough food in this community to be able to do that on a monthly basis. We don’t have enough dollars to be able to buy the food that we need, and we don’t have enough food that’s being donated.”
Despite the shortages, Day said they haven’t turned away anyone seeking their assistance. Instead, they will refer them to another resource for help — perhaps a church or another local nonprofit agency.
Additionally, Second Harvest makes an effort to educate and inform people who may qualify for a federal assistance program. “A lot of folks who come to us may not realize that they qualify for some federal programs like Women Infants and Children — the WIC program — or SNAP, which is the food stamp program,” Day said. “So we’ll make sure they have all that information about where they can go and sign up.”
“We’re committed to making sure that we’re in a position not to turn families away,” Kennard said. “Our goal over the next two months is to raise 10 million meals. We do that through people donating food and financial contributions to the food bank. For every dollar someone gives us, we can turn that into four meals.”
If you’ve been to the grocery store recently, you may be surprised to learn a single dollar can magically transform into four meals. “One dollar goes a long way with a food bank,” Kennard said. “We’re so efficient with our dollars.”
So what happens if Second Harvest falls short of their 10 million-meal goal?
“If we’re not able to meet that, then that’s where decisions come into play,” Kennard said. “How are we going to balance this for the rest of the year with the program expansions that we need to make, and the rural deliveries that we need to make? How are we going to do it with less?”
Events like the Little Big Town appearance, or partnerships with other nonprofits, public centers, museums or sports teams help raise general awareness of their needs. “A few weeks ago we worked with the Titans and raised 19,000 pounds of food,” Kennard said. “We try to get out of the box and get creative and get the community involved.”
Reaching out for local assistance will become increasingly necessary, since it’s unlikely that federal funding will increase or even stay the same. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocated $150 million to fill food banks nationwide, but in the past year, government commodity purchases through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Food Assistance program decreased by more than half. If the food stamp program — which was also bolstered by 2009’s economic stimulus package — receives cuts in 2013, more people will turn to food banks for help.
“People ask me, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ ” Day said. “Rising food prices keep us up, not knowing what the status of federal nutrition programs will be next year, whether they will decrease or remain the same — they probably won’t increase. So the likelihood is that they decrease, which means that more people will be coming to the food bank and need our help.”
Food banks have changed drastically over the years. In the past, it was all about nonperishable food, the kind of stuff you could line your bunker with. Nowadays, it includes perishable items such as dairy, fruits and vegetables, which need to be delivered in a timely manner to prevent spoilage. Additionally, while the old school of thought might have been “any food is better than no food,” present-day food banks place a premium on nutrition and health education.
“Nationally, food banks have turned the corner,” Kennard said. “We’re all trying to provide more nutritious, more wholesome foods to the communities that we serve. We know that there’s a lack of access to those items. That takes a lot of funding; it’s more expensive to buy produce than it is to buy peanut butter. You’ve got to have money to do that.
“Over the past 18 months, Jaynee’s really been driving this organization to do a better job with nutrition education and getting fresh produce out to low-income communities,” Kennard explained, noting the correlation between childhood hunger and childhood obesity. For families on limited incomes, parents make choices based upon the amount of money available rather than the kind of diet they would like to feed their children.
Kennard said that in addition to providing education on how to use dollars more wisely, participants can learn how to use fresh produce in their diets through programs such as Read and Eat, which is held at East Nashville’s Martha O’Bryan Center, near Cayce Homes.
Satellite centers like Martha O’Bryan can help Second Harvest better serve people who have limited access to preparing their food. Families who live in hotels or motels often have little more than a hot plate or a fryer, and even families with full kitchens often suffer from lack of electricity. “When they go to their site where they get their food assistance, they can let that site know what they’re dealing with,” Kennard said. “If they don’t have electricity or running water, those things can be identified, and at most of our sites, they can help them in those areas.”
Another relatively new program that Second Harvest offers is Perishable Deliveries, in which they transport 10,000 pounds of perishable food directly into communities in need, setting up a traveling farmers market at no cost to participants. For people living in food deserts with no transportation to grocery stores, these mobile farmers markets may be their only access to fresh produce.
With a national epidemic of diet-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes, food banks are more conscious than ever of the nutritional value of the food they’re distributing. Day said they always purchase low-sodium or low-sugar foods when there is an option, which costs more. Second Harvest employs a full-time dietitian to oversee nutrition planning for community education programs, placing a premium on getting nutritious food to people who need it. Day is an advocate of nutrition education; if people don’t have access to healthy food, the cycle of diseases such as obesity and diabetes won’t be broken.
“It all goes back to education,” Day said. “If people don’t understand how to prepare the food, they’re not going to prepare it in a healthy way. We can show them.”
But at its core, dealing with hunger means ensuring that basic needs are met — basic staples such as peanut butter, canned food, and shelf-stable items like fruit cups are essential, especially when food is transported to satellite facilities that may not be able to store large quantities of nonperishable items.
It’s easier than you think to help. In addition to being active on Twitter and Facebook — notifying the community of volunteer opportunities or immediate needs — Second Harvest makes it as simple as possible for people to pitch in, presenting information in a clear manner on the website and offering online registration for volunteering. They also encourage businesses and organizations — they work with more than 200 corporations each year — to volunteer or hold food drives.
Local nonprofit Hands On Nashville provides a calendar on its site (hon.org), outlining all upcoming volunteer opportunities through Second Harvest and other agencies in the community.
To help Second Harvest reach its goal of raising 10 million meals — which, after operating costs are added in, equals around $3 million — by Dec. 31, you can donate online at secondharvestmidtn.org. You can purchase food while you’re at the grocery store — check online for a list of needed items — or volunteer to assemble emergency food boxes or backpacks. If you work for a corporation, check to see if it offers a matching gift program or a volunteer program.
“All of that information is on our website,” Kennard said. “We try to make it as easy as possible. When you’re helping Second Harvest, they’re helping over 400 agencies in 46 counties.”
That equals about 650,000 people in Middle Tennessee each year, people in our communities. “As a community, they’re our neighbors,” Day said. “They look just like us. They depend on us. This community has always been extremely generous — whenever the plea has gone out, people have risen to the occasion. These 400 agencies depend on us to redistribute the food out to them — we are their primary source to feed families and individuals through their programs. If we can’t do it, they definitely can’t do it, because they have very limited resources.”
Since the general population’s awareness regarding hunger is heightened during the holiday season, Second Harvest is in a race against the clock to make its 10 million meal goal to fight hunger every day of the year.
“A kid can’t learn at school on an empty belly; you’re going to have behavior problems and attention issues,” Kennard said. “And we know that diabetes is a growing program in our senior and youth population. If they don’t have adequate food access and resources, they’re not going to live healthy lives.”
Just as hunger affects every part of life, if an individual or family has hunger issues, they usually have other issues, too. If you can’t put food on your table, you’re likely to need assistance with transportation, utility bills or paying for medical care. To remedy a wide variety of problems our community faces, the lack of access to healthy food must be addressed.
“Being hungry isn’t just about being hungry,” Kennard said. “It affects you everywhere.”