The low hum of chatting voices is punctuated by the occasional laugh and the sound of rustling plastic in the volunteer room at the Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri. More than a dozen people sit or stand at stainless steel tables, repackaging “wheat fuel flakes” from 700 pound boxes into family-size bags.
“I like to have something to get away from the television set,” said Marion Ballard, who has been volunteering at the food bank for about a decade.
By the numbers:
24.4 million - pounds of food acquired and distributed in 2009.
95,000 - people fed each month
50,000 - hours of volunteer service contributed in 2009
21,000 number of volunteers who worked in 2009
20 - number of pounds of food that can be acquired with $1
98.6 cents of every dollar donated is spent on food acquisition.
“And this does somebody good somewhere along the line,” he added.
Ballard, who will turn 86 in August, volunteers five days a week at the food bank. He retired from the MU Agricultural Experiment Station after working there for 35 years, and he was curious what went on in the food bank’s unassuming brick-faced building he often drove past.
His first day of volunteering had him coming back the next day, then the next.
Back problems prevent Ballard from standing comfortably for more than 30 minutes, but that doesn’t affect his work at the food bank. He can sit at the table as he affixes twist-ties to bags of cereal.
The Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri serves 32 counties in the state, covering an area of about 18,000 square miles.
Unlike a food pantry, the food bank serves as a middleman, acquiring food from donors and redistributing it to other agencies who provide it to people in need.
About two-thirds of the people helped by the food bank are single mothers.Another large portion are older individuals who need a little extra help making ends meet.
“Food banks are meant to be a supplemental food source,” said Mike DeSantis, a promotions staff member at the food bank. When the costs of housing, medicine and food go up, sometimes people have to make tough choices, he explained.This is where the food bank and one of its pantries can help meet one of those needs so those individuals can focus their resources on the others, DeSantis said.
The food bank is not a government agency, a common misconception according to DeSantis. Though the Food Bank does receive about 9 percent of its food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 70 percent comes from Feeding America and the rest from grants and local food drives.
Walmart is a major donor to the food bank. In addition to big contributions, like a recent $2 billion commitment to Feeding America, local stores can also give smaller amounts of food items. These are items that become a surplus when stores change displays or products get new packaging, DeSantis said.
In addition to standard non-perishable foods, the 46,000-square-foot warehouse often holds toilet paper and other non-food products. They are usually donated due to small tears or errors in the packaging that make them unfit for retail, but are otherwise fine.
Items like this are important, DeSantis said, because food stamps can only be used to purchase food. These donations help to bridge the gap by providing those in need with other necessities.
While the acquisition of food is an important part of what the food bank does, volunteers are essential to keeping it going.
Often, the food bank can take donations other places can’t, said Roger Mitchell, a food bank board member and volunteer since 1999.
“There will always be a volunteer group to sort it,” he said.
Rebekah Smith, who was working with Ballard and Mitchell repacking cereal, is a relatively new volunteer, with only about five months experience. But she’s already a part of the volunteer community at the food bank.
“We have so much fun here,” said Smith, 55, who is unable to work due to a stroke that permanently affected her right side when she was 4 years old.
According to DeSantis, it’s the excitement and passion the volunteers and donors bring to the food bank that really makes a difference.
“We get to feed hungry people,” he said.