Picking up food
October 29, 2015
by Diane Letson

Thanks to our partnership with amazing retail donors, Feeding America has been able to pick up donated food directly from retail stores every week to get it to people in need. In recent years however, the success of this partnership has created some challenges. The large number of retail stores requiring three to seven pickups a week made it hard for food banks to honor donations – especially when stores were located in rural areas, where driving distance roundtrip for food banks could take hours. And it’s important for Feeding America member food banks to pick up donated food immediately – as much of the food retailers provide is perishable – such as fresh produce, meats and dairy.

To solve this problem, Feeding America developed an agency enabling program. Agency is another word we use for food pantries and meal programs that distribute food directly to people in need. In the last five years, the majority of Feeding America food bank members have vetted, trained and mentored select food pantries or meal programs to be “enabled” to pick up food on behalf of the food bank.

Enabling agencies helps everyone. For pantries and meals programs, it gives them consistent access to meat/protein, dairy, deli and other dry grocery items. And pantries and meal programs can get food to the people they serve faster when they pick up directly from retailers rather than a food bank warehouse. Feeding America member food banks benefit from enabling as well – when we empower agencies to pick up donations directly, food banks save money by not spending it on additional trucks and drivers.

Recently, Feeding America received a generous gift from the Hillshire Brands Foundation to document the process of enabling agencies so we can expand the program. The funding allowed Feeding America to thoughtfully evaluate retail store donation programs throughout the network and select a half-dozen food bank members to conduct in-depth interviews at and also visit partner pantries and film their observations for evaluation. The result of these efforts is a best practices manual as well as three brief videos which capture how to identify agency capacity, build that capacity and then expand it. Hillshire’s gift will also support training sessions at host food bank members. 

When Feeding America’s retail team travels with food banks and their enabled food pantries to visit retail locations, they often hear that the frequency of pickups has increased. The retail team attributes this to several factors. Typically, enabled agencies have a strong volunteer base and are able to quickly adapt to an additional pickup. If the enabled agency is already picking up from a store three times a week, the agency is supporting a repetitive process which makes it easier for store employees to consistently follow donation procedures. As the partnership between the retail store and enabled food pantries and meal programs strengthens, both parties tend to identify more products that can be donated – which gets more nutritious food to people in need.

Some Feeding America retail partners ask for a seven-day-a-week pickup schedule. Feeding America member food banks are typically not open Saturday and Sunday for pickups or deliveries. Food bank members may host volunteers over the weekend for sorting and packing activities, but the warehouse is not fully operational during the weekend. This example pinpoints the efficiency of food pantries and meal programs – that are open on the weekends – picking up food and ensures that wholesome product does not end up in a landfill.

Although the Feeding America network is securing a staggering amount of food from retail locations (1.4 billion pounds in fiscal year 2015), there is more food available at current retailers and from the handful of retailers who have yet to implement a store donation program. To secure more food from existing retail partners and plan for the eventual addition of the non-donors, agency enabling will continue to be a significant function of a successful retail store donation program.  

“We have also found that turning stores over from Foodbank to direct agency pick-up vastly increases the number of pounds that are donated,” affirms a staff member at the Arkansas Foodbank. “For instance, when we turned a Walmart over from Foodbank to agency direct pick-up, they went from donating an average of 6,158 pounds/month all the way to 13,818 pounds/month, an over 124 percent increase!  This is not an anomaly, but the trend. Stores have proven they will give more when giving directly to agencies based in their own communities.”

*Diane Letson is the director of retail partnerships for Feeding America.

Tags: Fighting Hunger in Action , How We Work

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