VIP Interview: Kansas Food Bank

PHOTO COURTESY OF KANSAS FOOD BANK

PHOTO COURTESY OF KANSAS FOOD BANK

By MeLinda Schnyder

Thousands of Kansans do not have the financial resources to purchase food to take care of their household. It could be a senior citizen who has to choose between paying for medication or food, a working single mother whose utility bill doesn’t leave enough money to buy groceries or a child who has nothing to eat on the weekends when he can’t go to the school cafeteria.    
    “Hunger affects us all. It could be your neighbor, a child in your son’s or daughter’s class, even a co-worker. For a lot of folks, it is as close as a medical expense, a car breakdown or any unexpected bill,” said Brian Walker, president and CEO of the Kansas Food Bank. “With the support of the community, we are here to help our hungry neighbors meet their food needs. Food Bank donors give from their hearts. They understand that food is a necessity for everyone.”
    Walker has been with the non-profit, which is privately funded and does not receive federal or United Way funds, for 21 of its 33 years in operation. The Kansas Food Bank is headquartered in Wichita but provides food to 85 counties across the state. In the past few years, the Kansas Food Bank has started two programs to assist seniors in rural counties, but otherwise the organization’s role is to collect and distribute food to support others’ programs, like Food 4 Kids, which sends chronically hungry students home for the weekend with a backpack full of kid-friendly, nutritious food.
    Food from the Kansas Food Bank replaced more than 12 million missing meals for Kansans last year, between its own programs and partnering with food pantries, meal service programs and schools.

VIP: How did the Kansas Food Bank start in Wichita?
BW: Lionel Alfred was the man with the vision to make the food bank happen in 1984. He was with Boeing Wichita and knew that something needed to be done to help those affected by the downturn in the aircraft industry. He brought together business leaders, faith-based leaders and local government. They hired Virginia White, who was tasked with starting this thing called a “food bank” from the ground up to bring the concept to fruition.  

VIP: Why is the food bank needed today?
BW: One in seven Kansans experiences hunger. That is about 14 percent of the state’s population. Last year alone we provided over 12 million missing meals.
    Our mission is to provide comprehensive and compassionate hunger care whenever and wherever it is needed to safeguard the health, well-being and productivity of food-insecure Kansas families and their children, as well as senior citizens, the homeless and the chronically ill and impoverished among us.
    The food bank’s role is to serve as the main hub for distribution for non-profit agencies that provide hunger relief. To put it simply, we are the body of food and our partner agencies are the arms that put the food in the hands of our hungry neighbors in need.  

VIP: Explain how you work throughout the state.
BW: The Kansas Food Bank works with over 200 partner agencies that include food pantries, congregate meal programs and shelters across our 85-county service area (basically the entire state except the upper northeast corner that is covered by our sister food banks). Agencies rely on us to provide them with no-cost and low-cost food options that they in turn are able to provide to hungry neighbors across the state. Monthly, we run 24 routes across the state delivering to our agency partners and hunger care affiliates.
    As an example, in Wichita we work with many food pantries: Bread of Life, United Methodist Open Door, Catholic Charities Our Daily Bread, Table of Hope Metropolitan Community Church, Salvation Army and more. These agencies place orders with us and come in weekly to pick up perishable and non-perishable items that they in turn pack into food bags and boxes for households to take home. We also work with The Lord’s Diner and assist them with product that is then prepared into hot meals for their locations and food trucks. We provide shelters, such as Union Rescue Mission, St. Anthony Family Shelter and others, with food items that they are able to serve their residents with.
    So as you can see, a gift to the food bank turns into a gift that reaches far beyond our doors.

VIP: What type of food do you provide?
BW: Many times when people think of food pantries, things like cans of green beans, boxes of mac and cheese and cans of tuna come to mind. We do so much more than that. We distribute all sorts of food, from perishable fresh items to frozen meats and breads to nonperishable boxes and canned items.
    A few years ago, we made the commitment to provide more fresh, healthy items. Today we distribute over 2 million pounds of fresh produce a year. 
    We have freezer space to accommodate 464 pallets of product, and we have frozen meat and bread that is always available to our partner agencies.
    As food banking has evolved so have the items we are able to distribute. Our agency partners take pride in being able to provide families with full meals that can be taken home and prepared. With many households seeking food assistance, it is imperative we are able to do more than just emergency assistance.

VIP: Where do you get the food that you distribute?
BW: Food we get comes from a variety of locations: from national donations to local food drives and retailers, and we purchase a lot of our food. The Kansas Food Bank is a member of Feeding America network, a membership network of 200 food banks across the country that work together to provide missing meals to food insecure households. Being a part of this membership network enables the Kansas Food Bank to have access to food from national donors all across the country. The beauty of our network is that the food bank is a local organization with all of its assets owned local and decisions on how we operate are made locally by our board of directors.
    We have food drives that help supplement what goes out to our agencies. The largest one-day food drive happens in May with the National Association of Letter Carriers. We will easily pull in over 100,000 pounds of food just in Wichita that day alone. And right now as people are gearing up for the holidays, we have lots of local businesses and groups that collect food for us. Every box, every can makes a difference.
    With our buying power we can purchase more food on the dollar than one can purchase retail. We work with other food banks such as the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma to help purchase in bulk to cut costs.
    Daily our trucks head out to retailers around the city to “rescue” food that cannot be sold, yet is still consumable. The retail sector has thousands of pounds of product that cannot be sold yet is still good. Through this food recovery program, we picked up 2.8 million pounds of food last year that would have otherwise been destroyed.

VIP: What is the size of your organization?
BW: We have 14 board members and we have a very lean organization when it comes to staffing. At our warehouse here in Wichita we have a total of 23 employees, 20 full time and three part time. Volunteers provide enough hours annually to equate to 17 full-time employees. We could not do what we do without our wonderful volunteers. 

VIP: How are you funded?
BW: We are privately funded. We do not receive any federal funding or United Way funds. We write grants and submit many corporate proposals. We have a robust direct mail program, and we have many donors who have pledged to give monthly.
    We do not put on any events like golf tournaments, walks or galas, however there are events that are put on for the food bank. Empty Bowls, which just wrapped up with the Chili Cook-Off on Oct. 28 at Wichita State University, is one of those events.

VIP: How can readers support the Kansas Food Bank?
BW: Readers can support the food bank monetarily by simply mailing a check to us at Kansas Food Bank, 1919 E. Douglas, Wichita, KS 67211 or through a secure online donation at kansasfoodbank.org.