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The long lines for a Feeding America food bank

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Feeding America

Behind the Scenes

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Our #VBGIVESBACK partnership with Leighton Meester and Feeding America® continues! You've already learned how this cause is a truly personal one for Meester as well as the nonprofit's monumental impact on hunger relief in the U.S. Now, we're introducing you to the people on the ground, from the volunteers to those who are food-insecure themselves. Plus, we meet two individuals at a partner food bank in Dayton, Ohio, that provides nourishment not just for the body, but for the spirit and soul, too. Keep reading and learn how your donations are paying it forward in a very real way.

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Terri Champion, Food Recipient-Turned-Volunteer

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Terri Champion — Woodland Community Church in Bradenton, Florida

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Terri Champion is an author. A singer. A scholar. She has two master's degrees. And she is hungry. Originally from Philadelphia, Terri moved to Florida after her mother, who she was caring for, passed away. She went with the promise of a job, but it fell through. Then another opportunity fell through. With very little savings, Terri found herself in an unfamiliar position. "I never thought of myself as someone who needed to visit a food pantry," she said. "But not knowing if you're going to eat is probably the worst feeling I've ever dealt with." So, she visited the food pantry at Woodland Community Church in Bradenton, Florida. It changed her life. "Because I've never had to ask for help, it showed me that it's ok to not be ok," she said. At the pantry, a partner of Feeding Tampa Bay, a member of the Feeding America network, Terri got the food she needed to help stabilize her life. Without worrying about what she had to eat, she was able to focus on finding a job – which she did. "The pantry helped me immensely," she said. Now, Terri is still getting back on her feet. But while she does, she's been busy. She's writing a book about her life. She sings at a local church. And she is also giving back. She volunteers at the pantry that once helped her as much as she can. And even though Terri calls the last few years "a storm" that she's still working to get out of, she knows there's hope now. "There's definitely light at the end of the tunnel," she said.​

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Anne Lee, Food Recipient

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Anne Lee — Dairy Farmer in Berkshire, New York

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For years, Anne Lee, her husband and their family relied on income from their dairy cows to make ends meet. But in 2019, that changed.
The family owns a small farm in Upstate New York. In 2019, the dairy industry shifted and the money they were making from their dairy cows wasn’t nearly enough to keep food on the table. For the first time, the family needed a little extra help, so they turned to a local food pantry. “That changed everything,” Anne said. “My mom’s voice kept going through my head, ‘Take the helping hand when you need it, and give back when you don’t.’”
During a tough time, the pantry, which works with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, helped Anne and her husband feed themselves and their three children. And without having to worry about food, the family was able to focus on shifting their farm’s operations. “We opened a butcher shop on the farm,” Anne said. “And it’s going really well. We’re supporting ourselves without any help for the first time in over a year.” Not only is the family now able to support themselves, they’re working on ways to donate to the pantry that helped them, just like Anne’s mother always said. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without the pantry,” Anne said. “The least we can do is give back to say thanks.”

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Peter Pozo, Mobile Food Pantry Coordinator

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Peter Pozo — Feeding Westchester in Elmsford, New York

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“I’ve been running the program about eight and a half years,” Peter Pozo, the manager of the Feeding Westchester Mobile Food Pantry program, said. The program comes to White Plains twice a month and he said he’d seen a significant rise in neighbors receiving food since the beginning of the pandemic. “This is personal to me here… I grew up in White Plains and helping the people that are here in the community—some of the people that I know—makes it dear to me… Even if we make a difference in one person, that’s a great thing,” he said. “And we can’t forget where we came from…we want to give back, we want to do more. We don’t just want to just make a difference, we want to be the difference.”

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Michelle Riley, Food Bank CEO

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Michelle Riley, left, with a Foodbank team member

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Michelle Riley — The Foodbank in Dayton, Ohio

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What brought you to The Foodbank and a career in hunger relief?
I had been working at a domestic-violence shelter. It was very rewarding, but, for me, also trying and a little too close to home. Since I had lived my own poverty experience growing up, I decided to look for something that would help address the root causes of poverty and hunger was one of them.

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What’s the mission at the heart of The Foodbank?
The answer lies in asking why folks are coming to our lines. Are we investing in them in the right way? Do we understand the reasons? If someone doesn’t have a safe place to live, nutritious food for their body and is overall a healthy person—whether that means mental health or clean and sober living—then they’re not ready to go back to work. And if they’re not ready to go back to work, then they’re in our line. And if they’re in our line, then we are feeding the problem and not being part of the solution. So instead of just feeding people, we invest in three pillars: health equity, EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) and re-entry.

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Could you talk a bit more about the last two?
There are a lot of policy changes that need to happen once someone has paid their time in prison. Theoretically, the law protects us with equity—with food, transportation, a place to live… But the reality is very different. You might have family support for food and transportation, but need a place to live. Or someone might need job training. Or to go into a clean and sober living facility.
As for re-entry, we invest heavily in this. If I lined up all The Foodbank employees, one in three has been involved in the criminal justice system. Our passion lies in providing them with the right culture, the right work environment and a good sustainable wage. We will also have a new re-entry building complete with exam rooms, a commercial kitchen for nutrition classes, childcare and more. We won’t be providing the programs but are providing the building and space for free to an advisory board who advises the work going on—and the people on the advisory board are the people from the communities we serve. We have an interest in not just inviting the community but having the community be the driver. And we’re not duplicating services already available in the area. People from our line inform the work.

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“We have an interest in not just inviting the community but having the community be the driver. People from our line inform the work.”

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What is its reach and impact?
When I first started working at The Foodbank in 2011, we were distributing about 4 million pounds of food. Last year, we distributed over 17.8 million pounds of nutritious food and over 14.8 million meals to those in need. We are like Costco, we serve the pantries—they get their food from us for free.
What most people don’t realize about a food bank is that we’re also the keepers of data for the state. If you come to our lines, we don’t just give away food. We check people in and collect the demographics—zip code, age, whether they're employed or not, how many people are in the household, are they LGBTQ…. Then we heat-map all that information for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and look for holes. If we find a place where there’s not a brick-and-mortar pantry, then we take our mobiles to that area and distribute food. We go into that area and sustain it until we can turn it over to a pantry. We run about 30+ mobiles a month. While we may be one of the smallest of 12 food banks in the state, serving two and a half counties, because of poverty and the demographics, we are actually sixth highest in terms of need.
Then there’s the economic impact of our building—it’s about $3.2 million. We’re working on two additions to the building—the impact will be $9 million when the project is finished. One of the things I love most about our building is that we chose to build in a high poverty, high crime and very disinvested area. We invested in a neighborhood that really needed it.

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Could you share any anecdotes of the impact in the community?
I’m thinking of one particular gentleman in our special food-box program, which is for seniors living below or at 130% of federal poverty levels. A former researcher and engineer, he’s someone you would never think needs assistance. But we see this over and over again. He talks a lot about pride and what it took to sign up for this type of program. Now, he’s become an advocate and encourages others in his community, especially those in the low-income housing complex where he lives, to take advantage of it. These are folks who are really struggling to make ends meet while living in retirement.
We touched upon health equity earlier. We are in health equity because these seniors, they did everything they were supposed to do—they worked all their lives, saved what they could—then one health event wiped out their savings and there’s no backup plan.
Another story comes from the pandemic. During the early days of quarantine, we got a lot of calls from people. One mom, for example, had just run out of formula for her baby. She wasn’t working because she was at home and her husband had been exposed to COVID, so he was home as well. They had three dollars left. So we called around and one of our partner agencies was able to get the formula to us in 10 minutes; we had it on her doorstep in five. These are the sort of challenges you don’t think about, but that people face every day.

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What does a typical day look like?
No two days look the same. My job is to run the strategic plan, but I also spend a lot of time on HR. We hold sacred a culture where people can be successful, and the only way equity can reside is through trust. Change happens at the speed of trust—we say that a lot here. The honest truth is that I have the privilege of coming in and making sure the trains run on time, but other than that, there are a lot of folks here who are responsible for what we get done. If we don’t have relationships through HR and culture, then the real work we’re doing can’t happen.

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What do you love about what you do?
This food bank—you either love it or it doesn’t work for you. Because it’s a lot of work. A lot of us are chosen family. We provide support in a working environment so people can flourish. We’ve had many cases where people move on to a better job because they built their resumes with us. We’re a food bank family. We take care of each other.

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Sarah Sparks, Former Operations Director

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Sarah Sparks — The Foodbank in Dayton, Ohio

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What's your personal connection to The Foodbank?
I worked at The Foodbank from 2011 to 2017. I started out working in the warehouse, unloading trucks and building orders for the member agencies. Eventually, I became the warehouse manager and then operations director.

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Could you share some of the work you've done?
When Michelle [Riley, above] first told me that she wanted to partner with the reentry program, I was immediately on board with it. I helped review applications and hired warehouse staff from the program. As the warehouse manager, I also helped train all the new hires and got them acclimated to the team-oriented environment of The Foodbank. I am most proud of the time I spent training a few of the reentry hires to take on managerial roles. One of them took over the food safety program and he is doing an exceptional job!

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Why is this cause an important one for you?
The reentry program is personal to me because my father is re-entry. When I was growing up, I remember that he always had more than one job at a time. The only places that would hire him were factories or gas stations. Eventually, he started his own business. It was the only way he could do what he wanted to do and provide for our family.
Reentry programs like the one at The Foodbank give people a chance to be successful after incarceration. When someone is released from prison, society just expects him or her to find a job, a place to live and move on with their life. Yet, society creates so many barriers that it is extremely hard to find a job, a place to live and adjust to life after being incarcerated. Many of the negative influences that put someone in prison in the first place are still there when they get out. The Foodbank re-entry program provides comraderie and a sense of belonging for re-entry individuals who may feel like they have no support network when they are released.

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What's your single most memorable moment with the organization?
Every employee at The Foodbank has a small chalkboard with their name written on it. We would have chalkboard contests where everyone would decorate theirs and the best one would win. Some of The Foodbank board members were judges. I just loved seeing everyone’s creative chalkboards. Each one had a different story and was unique to that person. I felt like I got to know people better because of that.

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The Foodbank family in Dayton, Ohio

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