Keeping the needy fed a never-ending challenge

GIVING BACK: Frank Murphy, a volunteer at the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, sorts canned goods at the Cranston distribution center. The food bank reports a 28 percent spike in need this year. /
GIVING BACK: Frank Murphy, a volunteer at the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, sorts canned goods at the Cranston distribution center. The food bank reports a 28 percent spike in need this year. /

For nonprofit professionals, “organizational mission” is most easily described through personal connections to the people they serve. For Rhode Island Community Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff, one such person is a Providence mother he interviewed for a hunger survey.
Schiff asked her if she ever skipped a meal because of lack of money? Yes, the woman said, as her two children explored the inside of a food pantry at a Hartford Avenue housing project. Did you ever go to bed hungry? Again, yes.
Have your children ever gone hungry? The woman abruptly covered Schiff’s survey sheet with her hand. “She said, ‘My children always have enough food. That is why I come here,’ ” recalls Schiff.
Schiff, his employees and countless volunteers face the daily challenge of providing the most basic of human needs. In a time of economic crisis, their efforts have earned them the 2009 Providence Business News Business Excellence at a Nonprofit Organization award.
A year ago, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s distribution center – a 75,000-square-foot, renovated supermarket in Providence – had more food leaving its doors than was arriving.
By making the public aware of the need, collaborating with community groups, and further its their operation, the food bank met the challenge and provided 9.5 million pounds of food to Rhode Islanders in fiscal 2009 – a 14 percent increase since 2007.
“There are many heroes that we can point to for helping us get through what was really a recipe for disaster,” explains Schiff, who joined the food bank two years ago. He pointed to several unsolicited foundation grants, individuals’ generosity, food drives and the corporate community. “We had companies that canceled holiday parties to instead donate money to us.”
From fiscal 2007 to 2009, the food bank saw a 47 percent increase in community support.
Then there are the volunteers, an army of 650 strong who far outnumber the paid staff of 47. Employees of local companies and organizations also pitch in throughout the year. In all, volunteers contributed 31,685 hours of service last fiscal year.
Schiff said every one of those hours is vital to feeding a large and complex statewide network of 188 member agencies with 310 programs. As the main food-distribution center, the food bank solicits, collects, stores and delivers food. It channels goods to member agencies that include soup kitchens, food pantries, emergency shelters, group homes, day-care centers, youth programs and senior centers.
The food bank also runs a community-farm program, designed to get fresh produce to food pantries and provide food to children and families on weekends and school vacations. Its Kids Café program feeds more than 500 children at seven after-school sites in Newport and Providence.
The food bank’s Community Kitchen program provides culinary job training for people with few employment skills. As part of their training, students cook meals for the Kids Café program.
“I had no idea this program existed at a food bank,” says Nastassia Pinto, a student in the Community Kitchen program. “For those who want to change their lives, this is an opportunity to change,” she says of the full-time, 14-week program, which is now in its 12th year.
Member food pantries reported a 28 percent increase in clients in fiscal year 2009 over the previous year. The nonprofit was facing the largest demand for services in its 27-year history. The food bank’s plight and that of the state made national news.
From food pantries in South Kingstown to Woonsocket, the explanation for the spike was clear. “The largest growth area was families whose mothers and fathers both worked low-income jobs and then one of them lost a job. These were people who were just getting by with two jobs,” Schiff explains.
Schiff’s fear was the food bank could not keep up with the demand.
“With a food pantry, parents can pick up food, go home, cook it and feed their family,” he says. “If we can’t meet their needs, they go to soup kitchens. What keeps me up nights is the idea of a child’s earliest memories being meals at a soup kitchen.”
The restless nights ended with some unexpected news.
During a meeting with Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg late last year, Shiff was nearly knocked off his seat with an unsolicited $167,000 grant.
The Champlin Foundations, based in Rhode Island, also came to the rescue with a $250,000 grant. Combined, the two foundations enabled the food bank to acquire an additional 1.2 million pounds of food. Successful nonprofit professionals know that such grants are few and far between. To succeed each year, charities need a sound business plan that requires constant review, said Schiff.
Greater efficiency is always the goal, he said, but for an organization that spends only 9 cents on administrative costs for every dollar donated, it’s a challenge finding fat.
Staff and board members determined that a more precise distribution system would be helpful.
“We need to make sure that pantries with the highest volume receive the most food. Unfortunately, it [has been] difficult to do that under our current inventory system,” Schiff explains. The food bank decided to invest $100,000 to buy an improved inventory system.
The system involves online ordering, which requires training 300 people from member agencies, most of whom are volunteers.
The food bank started rolling out the program 12 agencies at a time and recently successfully completed its first batch. The project should be completed by December 2011.
While system-wide improvements were important, Schiff is proud of numerous individuals who took on new initiatives on their own.
Lorraine Burns, a food bank board member and director of the St. Teresa of Avila Food Pantry in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood, wanted to make sure the largest city in the state no longer lacked a distribution system for fresh produce.
Schiff pointed to Susan Gustaitis, director of the Johnnycake Center in South Kingstown, who realized that many children in need in her area lacked proper meals during school vacations. Gustaitis started a program to send food packets home with these children prior to vacations.
Moving forward, Schiff said the food bank is more focused on becoming a stronger advocate and collaborator with other organizations to improve policies around access to publicly funded food programs.
He said federal food-assistance programs – including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, WIC and school meals – are underutilized in Rhode Island. He added that there is a bottleneck in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications at the state level .
“Anyone in need of food should not be turned away or wait for these services,” said Schiff. &#8226

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