Caren Laughlin, marketing director for River Bend Foodbank, which serves a 17-county area in Illinois and a five-county area in Iowa, shows off a food kit from the food bank’s Backpack Program, which provides a weekend meal kit for hungry children. Local farm groups, agribusiness and farmers are strong supporters of the River Bend Foodbank.
Caren Laughlin, marketing director for River Bend Foodbank, which serves a 17-county area in Illinois and a five-county area in Iowa, shows off a food kit from the food bank’s Backpack Program, which provides a weekend meal kit for hungry children. Local farm groups, agribusiness and farmers are strong supporters of the River Bend Foodbank.

MOLINE, Ill. — It wasn’t that Caren Laughlin didn’t want to get a picture of the thousands of pounds of pork donated by the Illinois Pork Producers Association and affiliated groups through the Pork Power program, it was that there wasn’t any pork to be pictured.

“We get the donation in a couple of days before the photo presentation and news conference. When I came in to do the press conference, I asked where the pork was. Our volunteers told me it’s gone. The agencies had taken it before we could take the picture!” she said.

The swiftness with which the packages of frozen ground pork were claimed by hunger-service agencies demonstrates how popular farm commodities, such as meat, are to the Feeding America food bank program.

It also demonstrates how vital the support of agriculture, agribusiness and local farmers and farm groups is to food banks such as River Bend Foodbank.

“Meat is the No.1 product. It’s gold. It’s absolutely impossible to get unless you’ve got somebody generous like the pork producers,” said Laughlin, who heads up marketing and fundraising efforts for River Bend.

River Bend Foodbank serves a 22-county area, including 17 counties in Illinois and five counties in Iowa. Their service area includes the Quad Cities, but reaches east to La Salle and Lee counties, south to McDonough and Hancock counties and north to Jo Daviess and Carroll counties, encompassing much of the area in between.

In Iowa, the service area goes north to Dubuque County and south to Muscatine County and serves the counties along the Mississippi River between those two.

Food banks do not directly serve individuals. They gather food from various sources, which include corporate donations and government commodities, private hunger drives — the Quad Cities Student Hunger Drive brought in more than 700,000 pounds of food in 2012 — and food they purchase with cash donations and then distribute the food to agencies that include food pantries and soup kitchens.

In 2011, the River Bend Foodbank distributed some 7 million pounds of food to 300 member agencies.

Being located in a rural area and in the same city as one of the world’s leading agribusinesses, John Deere, the relationship between River Bend Foodbank and the agricultural community is a natural fit. “They’ve been one of our longest-time supporters, the agriculture community. They’ve been behind the food bank for years,” Laughlin said.

The roles that agribusinesses such as John Deere and local farm and ag groups, such as the Rock Island County Farm Bureau and the IPPA, are evident everywhere.

“Deere is one of our most important donors. They actually fund one-half of our backpack program,” Laughlin said.

That program serves 1,500 hungry children in 32 local schools with a food pack of single-serving size breakfast, lunch and dinner foods to ensure the child has a meal each day over the weekend.

Children are selected for the program by their school staff, including lunchroom staff, teachers, counselors and principals. “A typical package includes two entrees, like beef stew and lasagna. Shelf-stable milk because we feel that’s such an important nutrient, two servings of cereal and two fruits and two juices,” Laughlin said.

Financial support for the program is vital since the single-serving packages required for the packs tend to cost more than large-serving packages. “We want a special nutritional mix for the kids, and we also want for them to be able to open it and eat it themselves,” Laughlin said.

The Backpack Program also provides serves another basic need for the children who participate.

“I got a letter yesterday from one of our backpack schools, from the principal, who said it’s not only important for the nutrition-to-education link, which we all know is there, but it’s important because these kids know somebody cares about them beyond the school. It’s so important that the kids realize that somebody knows and cares about their situation and their basic needs,” Laughlin said.

Other donations from agriculture also come in the form of cash. Five Illinois county Farm Bureaus — Rock Island, Henry, Mercer, Whiteside and Stark — presented the food bank with a check for almost $39,000, the proceeds from the Bushels for Hunger program.

In that program, farmers donate bushels of grain at their local elevators. Those bushels are sold, and the proceeds go to the Bushels for Hunger program.

Although the price of food has increased for everyone, including food banks, they still can get more bang for their buck when purchasing large quantities of food.

In addition to donated food from private and corporate sources — Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club is a strong supporter of the Feeding America food banks — the food bank surveys its member agencies to see what is most needed.

The Feeding America food banks, through the power of bulk purchasing, can buy larger quantities at lower cost.

“I always say that you can go and give one box of cereal to your food bank or you could give them the same amount of money and they could go and buy many boxes of cereal,” Laughlin said.

The food selection at the 25,000-square-foot River Bend warehouse includes a wide variety — from U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities such as canned pork and canned pears in juice to bags of dried plums, fresh bread and pastries.

“Some of this, you might think what the heck to they need that for? It’s not very nutritious,” Laughlin said.

But all of the products fill a need, whether it’s trays of cookies to a shelter for battered women or cakes that help a mother make a birthday special.

“We had one of our food pantry people tell us that a woman broke down in tears when she walked into the food pantry. She saw a cake. Her son was turning 15, and she had been worried she couldn’t get him a birthday cake,” Laughlin said.

Cash donations also go to fund programs such as the Backpack Program and the mobile food pantries.

The mobile food pantries play an important role in distributing perishable items, such as fruits and vegetables, and in getting food to areas and populations where there may not be access to regular transportation, including the elderly and hungry people in rural areas.

“We take one of our trucks, fill it with food and go where we know there’s a need. We have about 40 to 50 volunteers, and that food is gone in three hours,” Laughlin said.

Support and sponsorship is vital for the mobile food pantries. Each mobile food pantry visit distributes some $20,000 worth of food and costs around $2,000 to do.

“The items that our agencies may have problems distributing, like fresh fruits and vegetables, we put out in a mobile food pantry and it’s gone. You can’t believe the demand for fresh fruits and vegetables,” Laughlin said.

In addition, when there’s product that people may not be familiar with, for instance bags of dried plums, Laughlin and her volunteers hand out recipe cards with suggestions for preparing the product. The wide demographics of the hungry also make sure that nothing goes to waste.

“You might have a young family in line at a food pantry who have never heard of dried plums, and you might have an elderly lady in line behind them who’s been baking for 60 years and knows how to turn those plums into a pie,” Laughlin said.

In addition to providing food for the more than 300 agencies they serve, River Bend also provides support and assistance to the pantries.

“We feel like we have to really nurture those pantries and make sure they are able to operate,” Laughlin said.

That includes technical assistance, for instance, helping an agency obtain a grant for refrigeration or storage.

In addition to donations and fundraising that Laughlin does, member agencies pay for the food they get through a shared maintenance agreement. Each agency pays 18 cents for each pound of food they get from River Bend Foodbank.

The food bank operates with an overhead that most private companies would admire — only 3 percent of the food bank’s financial resources go to support operating costs, including a staff of four which is bolstered by volunteers.

Agencies select from a list on the food bank’s website. That list is updated daily and includes all the product available.

Then each agency’s order is palletized and packaged, and the agencies collect their order at the food bank.

Laughlin said that the “face” of hunger in the River Bend service area looks like anyone. As the economy has worsened, the demand continues to climb for the food provided by River Bend Foodbank and other Feeding America food banks.