Putting food on the table is not an option for everyone in Lee County.
According to the Naples Daily News, 12 percent, or about 122,000 people, including 38,800 children (20.5 percent), are food insecure. The Naples Daily News used statistics from a March Feeding America report.
While there are federally- and state-funded programs to assist those who are food insecure, national and local organizations, such as the Midwest Food Bank, come up with creative ways to make sure that food can be on everyone’s tables.
Founded in Central Illinois in 2003, the Midwest Food Bank expanded into Florida in 2014.
When Founder and President David Kiester brought his team to Florida for some much-needed time away from the Midwest cold, they realized that there was a need for food in Southern Florida.
While churches and non-profit organizations make food, both perishable and non-perishable, available to residents, their supply, when solely backed by food drive or monetary donations, often runs short or runs dry.
Working directly with manufacturers, farmers and packaging companies, Midwest Food Bank began to send a semi-truck of food to Fort Myers once a month.
In the beginning, the semi-truck helped a few food distribution agencies. Then as word spread, the operation grew, and a warehouse in Fort Myers was established to serve 120 agencies in 29 counties across Florida, Southern Mississippi and Alabama.
“We don’t want to necessarily be considered a warehouse, although that’s what we call ourselves,” MWFB Executive Director of Florida Karl Steidinger said. “We’re a distribution center.
“We want to make sure it goes off to the community. So while the warehouse is generally full, it’s not our goal to just hoard food.”
Sixteen years later, with eight locations in the United States and two international locations, the Midwest Food Bank has grown beyond Kiester’s wildest imagination.
“It’s growing by leaps and bounds,” Steidinger said.
Serving as the “middleman,” Midwest Food Bank builds relationships with large food manufacturers or storage facilities to take possession of their overstock.
“The number that we most commonly use is 40 percent of the food supply in the United States is wasted,” Steidinger said.
Manufacturers sit on and discard product for a variety of reasons. The product could be too close to an expiration date, it may not meet the specifications of a grocery store or it may be mislabeled.
“That’s what we’re targeting,” Steidinger said. “We would like to take that product, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.”
Three weeks ago, Midwest Food Bank took a semi-truck to Southern Georgia to pick up watermelons.
“They were beautiful, but they were too large,” Steidinger said.
“So they were fresh out of the field. We went straight to the farm and loaded a semi with watermelons.
“And we blessed the community with them.”
Midwest Food Bank assumes the responsibility of the product, shouldering the cost to take the product out of the manufacturer’s facility and transporting it to their facility where they process it.
“So in the bargain, the food manufacturer gets a tax write-off for the full value of the food, we get free food and we’ve salvaged or rescued food that would have otherwise went to the landfill. And they’ve actually saved money in that they didn’t have to transport it to the landfill and pay a fee.
“So, it’s a win-win.”
On the other side of the bargain are the food pantries, soup kitchens, churches and other non-profits who receive the free product to distribute to those in need without cost.
“They have to promise us in writing, they sign a document every time they pick up, that they’ll give the food away for free,” Steidinger said.
“There’s no cost associated with the food going out our doors. We have them promise us that they’ll do the same, so they don’t profit off of that food in any way.”
Using this food collection and distribution method, the Midwest Food Bank is able to provide about 40 to 50 percent of the food on the food pantry shelves.
Other food usually comes from food drives, monetary donations or the organization’s relationships with grocery stores.
Collecting, processing and distributing 10 to 15 semi-truck loads of food does come at a cost to the Midwest Food Bank, though. Aside from the monetary needs to get the food and bring it to their location, Midwest Food Bank runs on the sweat of volunteers.
Last year, 900 volunteers put in 1,700 hours of time doing tasks such as running a forklift, working a fundraiser, cooking meals and cleaning the warehouse, among other tasks.
“At every level of this organization, there are volunteers involved,” Steidinger said. “And it’s important for us to do what we do.
“It’s important that we have volunteer support, we couldn’t do what we do without volunteer support.”
Monetary support is also something that helps operations run.
“I think people automatically think I have to write $1,000 check or a $10,000 check or a $50,000 check. That’s simply not true,” Steidinger said.
Through the food bank’s Partner Program, any donation accounts for more than the dollar amount.
“Some people give us $5 a week, other people give us $10 a month, you know, whatever they can do. Others give us $100 a month, some $500 a month.
“That really sustains us and helps us continue sustainable growth. We say yes, without that, we would, we would be struggling.”
But because of the way the operation runs, $5 isn’t just $5.
“Because we use the volunteer support, and because of the way that we get all our food donated, we’re able to turn every dollar someone gives us into $33 of food that actually goes into the community,” Steidinger said.
“People can say, well, I’m not doing that much. But if you gave Midwest Food Bank $10, you’ve actually given someone $330 in food.”
It’s a philosophy that Kiester has used from the very beginning.
“David has said to me more than once, ‘When someone gives you $1, that is $1 God gave them. And so be a good steward. Make sure you make that dollar go as far as you possibly can,’ “Steidinger said.
Steidinger said that the Midwest Food Bank would also like to be included in people’s prayers.
“We are a faith-based organization. And we want to do this to the glory of God,” he said.
“That’s our motivation behind what we do, that we would support the community, but that others would see the love of Christ through what we do.”
*Lee County Plumbing and Well Service is a supporter of the Midwest Food Bank.