June 17, 2010
For just about forever, the charitable act of feeding the hungry meant filling stomachs with leftovers. In the book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible, to use an ancient example, the wealthy landowner Boaz lets his impoverished relative Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth glean whatever grains of barley the harvesters had left behind. (He later marries Ruth.) Until quite recently, most food-assistance programs gave out canned and dry foods gleaned from Thanksgiving drives and generic processors, and foot-long blocks of tasteless government-surplus cheese.
That's why I was astounded to discover what the St. Augustine Food Pantry here in the South Bronx has been putting in their grocery bags these days: fresh apples and carrots, frozen vegetables and blueberries, whole-wheat pasta, elegant grinders of McCormick garlic sea-salt, bottles of fruit juice, chocolate- chip cookies, boxes of Triscuits, family-sized wedges of Borden cheddar and mozzarella chesses — things everybody loves to eat and drink. Last week's selection even included several cases of Fresh Ginger Ginger Ale with Pomegranate Juice, concocted by Asian-food guru Bruce Cost.
Sister Dorothy Hall, O.P., the food pantry director, recently treated me to a glass.
"Wow," I said as the bits of ginger hit my palate, "this is the best carbonated drink I think I've ever had. Where did it come from?"
"The Food Bank," she told me. "I can't believe the quality and variety of the food we get from them. It's a pleasure to give it out."
Every Monday, Sister Dorothy's pantry in the basement of St. Augustine Catholic Church distributes bags containing food enough for nine well-balanced meals to around 500 people. Her primary source is the Food Bank For New York City, which started out in 1983 as Food For Survival, a clearinghouse to solicit and store food donations and government allocations and channel them to participating food pantries and soup kitchens. This in itself was a major step forward in addressing the growing problem of hunger in the city, relieving the small neighborhood agencies of the anxiety of finding food and of dealing with the complexities of the food bureaucracy. Throughout the years, it has broadened its scope to include nutrition education, cooking classes, school programs, and assistance in applying for federal food stamps and earned-income tax credits.
It's not just about survival anymore; it's about bringing people into the mainstream. "Food Bank" is a more accurate name.
"The old idea of feeding the hungry was that the desperate will take anything," says Carol Schneider, the Food Bank's senior media relations manager. "It's the opposite now. All people have equal dignity, and our goal is to provide the most nutritious and tasty food available and to get people out of the band-aid mode so they can shop for their own food, make healthy choices, and feel good about themselves."
This attitude is no better seen than in the Food Bank's Food Sourcing Division and its director, David Grossnickle. Just a year into the job, Grossnickle has transformed the operation, tirelessly spreading the word to merchants large and small.
"It's all about communication," he says. "When I call up a prospective donor, they usually come to the phone with this mind- set that, oh, you're the group that gives to homeless people. When I explain that there are all kinds of people that need food assistance — families, people that have jobs and a future, young and old, maybe even some of their neighbors — they end up saying, ‘I had no idea.' Usually I can close the deal."
About five percent of the Bank's procurements are wholesale purchases of staple foods that food-assistance programs rely on every week — canned vegetables and fruits, tuna, ground beef, chicken, condiments. In addition, many of the name-brand items like the Triscuits come through Feeding America (formerly called America's Second Harvest; see Ruth, above), a national clearinghouse that solicits and distributes large-scale donations from the big food manufacturers.
The rest of the food comes from local donations.
"Most distributors have excess food at one time or another," says Grossnickle, "and that's when we can help. We make it as easy as possible. I tell them, ‘When you've got a space problem, remember we're just a phone call away.'"
Sometimes Grossnickle lands some very interesting stuff, like Bruce Cost's ginger ale and the load of Greek cookies and biscuits he recently secured from an importer. "These kinds of foods are great because they give people the chance to try something they've never tried before."
Healthy eating is a priority. "We're always looking for foods that are nutritionally dense," he says. "We try to stay away from sugary donations. If a distributor offers us soda, I usually tell them, ‘Well, soda isn't really great — what else do you carry?' That's where a lot of our juices come from."
Accessing fresh foods is another part of Grossnickle's mission. Of the 70 million pounds of food distributed yearly by the Food Bank to over a thousand groups serving 1.3 million people, 13 million pounds is fresh produce. With their warehouse right in the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, the nation's largest wholesale produce distribution center, the Food Bank gets first pick of excess perishables and screens it for quality before sending it out to the programs. The Bank also partners with food banks in upstate New York for a wide selection of seasonal produce from local farmers.
For the Food Bank, it's still about leftovers, but leftovers of a different kind, gleaned from the top, enhancing not only health but human well-being.
Sister Dorothy, got any more of that ginger ale?