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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.