Handling Bulk Donations: Repacking in Baton Rouge

May 10, 2016
by Diane Letson

Bulk donations, food items packed into totes, may prove challenging to process for a food bank that lacks a dedicated “clean room.” Clean rooms are designed to facilitate – in a safe and contained manner – the packaging of bulk foods and other food items into consumer-sized bags, boxes, etc. Having a clean room is a definite plus in the food banking world. Owning and operating a repack machine in a dedicated space is rare, and affords the food bank operations staff an opportunity to rethink their business model from solely a distribution organization to a processing and distributing facility. The Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank (GBRFB) is one Feeding America member food bank that has been operating a repack machine for more than a year.

The story behind the machine is one of a single person making a big difference. Ron Zappe, the owner of Zapp’s Potato Chips, a Louisiana-based company and a longtime supporter of GBRFB, had plans to donate one of his company’s machines to the food bank for a repacking operation. Sadly, he passed away but his family strongly believed in honoring his commitment and generously funded the purchase of a $175,000 machine in his memory. Prior to receiving this machine, the food bank shied away from handling bulk donations, as they were difficult to disperse to food pantries and meal programs and the there was no clean room for repacking. 

Beans, pasta, cereal and rice are all items the repack machine can package into consumer-friendly sizes. Recently, a sister food bank in New Orleans received a very large donation of bulk rice and worked with GBRFB to process this donation through the repack machine. The food bank in Baton Rouge was able to keep a portion of the rice in lieu of payment to help cover their materials and labor expenditures. However, using this machine as a revenue generator will help the food bank keep the machine operating on a consistent basis along with providing the food bank with funds to help cover costs and possibly raise funds for future repairs and improvements. In the future, GBRFB plans to reach out to local food entrepreneurs and advertise the opportunity to help them with repacking initiatives – and in the process engage in entrepreneurial activities itself! 

In addition to turning bulk food into consumer-friendly sizes, the repack machine is also providing a skills-based volunteer experience for some GBRFB volunteers. Not every volunteer will be interested in running a repack machine, and a certain set of skills are needed in the manufacturing world. Volunteers who can be trained to run the machine will help defray the time and costs associated with having food bank staff running and monitoring the machine. A dedicated group of such volunteers can also become trainers for future skills-based volunteers. 

Bob Kanas, chief operations officer at GBRFB commented, “This repack machine has the potential to make a significant difference for the 11-parishes we serve. Not only will we be able to serve more people through the distribution of consumer-sized product, but we will also be able to receive funds to continue to fulfill our mission. All of this is possible because the Zappe family recognized the need, had a vision, and saw it through.”

*Diane Letson is the director of product sourcing and retail partnerships.