September is Hunger Action Month. The first question that I’m commonly asked about the food bank is “Where do we get all the food we distribute?”. And the honest answer is…that’s complicated. There is no really easy way to define how our organization does what it does, we often just do it.
I like to break it down into three different areas of food: donated, government commodities, and purchased foods.
Many people think they are familiar with donated foods. They’ve given to a community food drive or supported their local church pantry during the holidays. These ideas aren’t wrong because we definitely receive food this way. However, it’s much more than that. When food banking as a model began, it was really a food waste organization collecting unused breads and produce from small grocery stores in the late 60’s. In the 80’s and 90’s, food banking transformed into receiving tractor-trailer load donations from corporate food producers across the country. Many of the items were foods that were overproduced, lacked a sufficient market, were coded, packaged wrong, or slightly dented or damaged.
In the 2000’s corporate grocery stores came on board, piloting small donations of outdated but frozen proteins and bread items. Eventually, this turned into a billion-pound stream of donated foods in the United States when all food items at almost every major chain grocery store came into the donation program.
Government commodities are centered around the Farm Bill, which is up for reauthorization in 2023 in Congress. The Farm Bill authorizes two of the largest commodity programs in the country, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). Most of the food that West Virginia receives through the feds is through TEFAP. Believe it not, TEFAP was and still is less intended toward feeding families than it is for market stabilization for the agricultural community, not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s often confusing as to why the program operates the way it does, until we understand that it is an agricultural program first, feeding program second. CSFP target seniors struggling with food insecurity and in West Virginia, the two food banks are authorized to provide 10,000 food boxes each month to hungry seniors. In a state with an aging population and almost 30,000 seniors eligible for the program, this is bittersweet.
Finally, purchased foods help food banks fill in the gaps where donations and commodities do not meet the need. Recently, that gap has been widening, with donations decreasing with inflation and manufacturing efficiencies and commodity levels reverting to pre-pandemic levels. Last year, Mountaineer Food Bank purchased over $5 million worth of food, a record number. This can only be done with donations, grants, and federal support.
We all know that food and support for food is only part of the answer, unfortunately, it’s today’s answer and the most urgent need many of our struggling families have. This Hunger Action Month, I urge you to get involved, learn about hunger in your community and help support the work being done in West Virginia. We need you. Our 200,000 struggling West Virginia neighbors need you.
Chad Morrison is the CEO of Mountaineer Food Bank, headquartered in Gassaway, WV. He has been with the food bank for 15 years.