Nonprofits Work to Reach All Food Insecure Families Across Metro Area, Greater Region 11/26/18 11/26/18 11:01:56 AM
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The Food Bank for the Heartland has a West Omaha warehouse of food product stored until it can be distributed to local food pantries across Nebraska and Western Iowa.
Nonprofits Work to Reach All Food Insecure Families Across Metro Area, Greater Region
By Scott Stewart
The Daily Record
More than 100,000 people in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area don’t consistently know where they will get their next meal.
In some parts of the metro area, nearly half of the residents are food insecure, according to research funded by the United Way of the Midlands and the Iowa West Foundation. The problem is even more prevalent among families with children.
“All of us need access to healthy, nutritious, affordable food,” said Nancy Williams, president and CEO of the grassroots Omaha nonprofit No More Empty Pots, in a news release. “We know that when we consume more healthy food, it can lead us to live better lives.”
To address those challenges, United Way joined with more than 70 community partners to produce a food security plan for residents of Douglas, Sarpy and Pottawattamie counties that identifies goals and seeks to align efforts to feed more hungry people in the metro area.
At the same time, a strategic planning process is underway at Food Bank for the Heartland to expand its services – which stretch from Nebraska’s panhandle to western Iowa – in an effort to reach every food insecure person in the broader region.
Brian Barks, president and CEO of Food Bank for the Heartland, said a study in 2015 determined there was a need for 39 million meals a year in the organization’s 93-county service area, which includes all of Nebraska – except for 16 counties served by the FoodBank of Lincoln – as well as 16 Iowa counties.
The study found about 8 million meals were being provided by other hunger-relief organization, Barks said. The food bank was providing about 15 million meals, so there was a gap of 16 million meals. That’s since shrunk to a gap of 9 million meals, which the organization hopes to close to zero by 2025.
“When we looked at it, pure and simple, we had to double our distribution and we had to double the amount of money that we raised,” Barks said. “We need people to understand that even though the economy is getting better, there are still too many people who are being left behind.”
Mariel Harding, director of community impact at United Way of the Midlands, said about 12.5 percent of metro-area residents are food insecure, based on 2016 data. That’s down from 13.3 percent in 2014, but there’s still a lot of progress left to make.
“Food insecurity is a really interesting topic because it’s often tied to other issues in life like unexpected medical bills or losing a job or being evicted,” Harding said. “Every neighborhood in our community is impacted by food insecurity.”
Bringing together community organizations and advocates to work together on food insecurity will help gather common data, share best practices and foster additional cooperation. For example, sometimes providers will receive more donations than they could use and they struggle to get that extra food into the larger system – ensuring that food that could help someone doesn’t go to waste.
“There could be a more coordinated, maybe even technological, solution to distribute the food that is available and ready to be eaten,” Harding said.
Maintaining information on all the resources available in the community can also be challenging for smaller organizations. The “Healthy Food for All – A Community Food Security Plan” process identified United Way’s 211 service as the best way to keep track of that information for community groups.
“There is so much good and innovative work going on in our community,” Shawna Forsberg, president and CEO of United Way of the Midlands, said in a news release. “By committing to working together to achieve common goals, our community is poised to make even greater impacts.”
How to Help
Talking about food insecurity is the first step to making a difference, Harding said.
“There are a lot of ways to get involved depending on what people are interested in,” she said. “The food plan is a good place to start if people are curious and want to learn more.”
Working with a local community garden, your community’s local food pantry and other organizations that work to help people are other places to start. Barks said the Food Bank for the Heartland welcomes groups of volunteers, allowing companies to engage their employees while making a big difference.
“One thing that we offer hereat the food bank is an incredible volunteer experience,” Barks said. “We’re able to handle upwards of 60 volunteers in a single shift, which can provide an incredible team-building opportunity for many corporations out there.”
Those volunteer opportunities include sorting through food donations and repacking bulk produce purchases into family-friendly sizes, which allowed for quicker distribution to area families.
“We believe very strongly in respectful distribution,” Barks said. “Our mission work becomes next to impossible without the help of our volunteers.”
At the end of the day, though, cash donations are critical to sustaining many organizations – especially
those like the food bank that can magnify that donation through bulk purchasing of perishable food.
“We are more than willing to meet people wherever they feel most comfortable,” Barks said. “Certainly we can do more with a donated dollar than you or I can at our local grocery store. Here at the food bank, if you give us a dollar, we are able to provide enough food for three meals.”
For those looking to organize food drives, the most-needed food items include peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, canned tuna and chicken, cereal, pancake mix, canned fruits and vegetables, pork and beans, pasta and sauce and boxed meals, according to Food Bank for the Heartland’s website, foodbankheartland.org, which offers more information on food drives and how to make donations.
Food Bank for the Heartland charges a shared maintenance fee to its member organizations of up to 16 cents per pound on about half the food it distributes, excluding produce, bakery items and government commodities. That can make direct donations to food pantries providing direct distribution to people a more effective means of giving
to those specific organizations.
For those looking to help children, a donation of $160 to the Woodhouse BackPack Challenge through Food Bank for the Heartland provides cereal, entrees, milk and fruit to an elementary school child every Friday during the school year, helping to fill the gap for those children relying on free meals at school.
Harding also highlighted the need for professionals in the area to consider skilled volunteerism.
“People sometimes think, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go and help stock the pantry,’” Harding said. “There are also opportunities for things like, if you are an accountant, helping to provide budgeting seminars or resume development.”
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‘Healthy Food For All’ Plan
Vision: We envision a food-secure community where every person in the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area has access to an adequate supply of nutritious, affordable and culturally-appropriate food to be productive members of our community.
Goal #1: All community members have equitable and adequate access to nutritious food.
Goal #2: Food is produced and distributed in ways that create a sustainable system that values workers, consumers,
and the land.
Goal #3: Community members have knowledge and skills to grow, select, and prepare nutritious food to maximize resources.
Goal #4: Catalyze community change around food system challenges and root causes of hunger.
Read the whole plan online at uwmidlands.org/food-plan.
Source: United Way of the Midlands