In the last three decades, Community Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Indiana has distributed an astounding 160 million pounds of food to the hungry.
Staff, volunteers and board members of Community Harvest were joined by local residents and lawmakers Monday as they celebrated 30 years of helping the community.
Initially, the food bank was formed after International Harvester left Fort Wayne in 1983.
The company’s closing left hundreds jobless and was devastating to the community, said Jane Avery, executive director of Community Harvest Food Bank.
People did not think it would happen, but it did, Avery said. We saw average people having trouble and there were no signs of it getting better.
At that time, the food bank was considered a temporary need, she said.
But the human condition is never under control and there is always need, Avery said.
The organization worked out of churches and affiliated food pantries until 1993 when the main facility on Tillman Road was built.
Several years ago, Community Harvest began a campaign to raise $5 million to expand the facility and is about $500,000 short of hitting that goal, Avery said.
Helping with the campaign is Chris Gomez, Kroger’s district operations coordinator, who presented Avery with $25,000 – the last installment of a $75,000 commitment from the grocery chain.
The food bank and Kroger have had a long-lasting relationship, Gomez said.
The money will help with renovations at a new second site at 1010 N. Coliseum Blvd. It will be the first Feeding America food bank in the nation to use a cutting-edge blanch-chill-freeze technique, allowing fresh produce to be stored for distribution months later.
The new blanch-and-freeze center will initially concentrate on five vegetables, including two types of potatoes, corn, carrots and green beans.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, recently donated green beans from his family’s farm to the center and attended the anniversary event.
This is a great opportunity to show other parts of the country how we reach out across northeast Indiana to help others, Stutzman said. It’s a great opportunity to bring a model that works for out community to a national platform, he said.
In addition to Kroger, the facility may be getting another big helping hand from the grocery industry.
Costco representatives Melanie Crysler, general manager, and Scott Gard,receiving manager, said the new $30 million, 150,000-square-foot Costco store will open in Fort Wayne on Oct. 16, Crysler said.
Costco does a lot of donations, Crysler said. We’re so excited, especially after we saw the size of this (Community Harvest) operation.
Things have changed dramatically in the past 30 years, said Bill Hoover, chief operating officer at Community Harvest.
Hoover, who is married to Avery, was hired in 1991 as the warehouse director. Hoover said he has always enjoyed his job and the people he works with.
Every day is a good day, Hoover said. I work with a dedicated group of people.
He is especially impressed by the employees’ and volunteers’ compassion.
They treat everyone with respect and dignity, he said.
People who are down on their luck, especially new clients of the food bank, are sometimes ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help, and the staff understands, Hoover said.
Our job is to give them food and not judge, he said.
Many volunteers used to be clients and sometimes there are former volunteers who find themselves entering the food bank as a client, Hoover said.
When Hoover started, he was one of nine employees.
We had no loading dock or refrigeration and two elderly gentlemen took inventory with a pencil and piece of paper, he said.
The warehouse was 9,000 square feet – it’s now 37,500 square feet, he said.
We now have a fleet of trucks, he said.
The facility also has high volume refrigeration and freezer capacity, an updated information technology department and multiple loading docks.
The center’s growth has resulted in an urgent need for volunteers.
It takes a massive staff of volunteers to deliver 11 million pounds of food to 90,000 people every year, said Tammy Klimek, programs manager.
The agency used 7,000 volunteers last year, she said.
Klimek began as a volunteer three years ago when she and her teenage daughter helped pack and deliver groceries to homebound seniors.
I wanted to give back to the community and get my daughter involved, Klimek said. We were fortunate enough to have the necessary vehicle, gas and time to get involved in the senior food program, she said.
Klimek went from being a volunteer to a manager for the volunteers.
The food pantry is always in need of volunteers, Klimek said.
Every week it takes 53 drivers to deliver food to seniors and about 430 volunteers to help out at the main store, farm wagons, children’s and seniors’ programs and other affiliates, she said.
Volunteering and working at the food bank is something that staff say is a pleasure.
Take Hoover, for example.
Set to retire soon, he is beginning to phase himself out while overseeing the new construction at the north building and helping out at the blanch and freeze center before retiring.
Then, I’ll be back as a volunteer, he said with a smile.