Clyde Fitzgerald has heard hundreds of heartbreaking and inspiring stories during his 36-year association with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest N.C.
But a conversation with Johnny, a 9-year-old boy, continues to drive Fitzgerald’s passionate mission to try and end hunger and food insecurity in Winston-Salem and the 18 counties that are served by Second Harvest.
One evening, Fitzgerald, who became CEO of Second Harvest in 2008, was visiting one of the organization’s Kids Cafés. The cafes provide an evening meal, tutoring and enrichment activities three nights a week throughout the year.
“I saw lots of volunteers that night,” Fitzgerald, 73, said. “The leader of this café was and still is a teacher. I asked if our program was making a difference in the lives of these children. ‘Absolutely, you are making a difference. I see hungry children every day in school. There are kids begging me for food every day.’
“I went over to one young boy and started speaking with him. I asked him if he was having a good day. ‘No sir, I’m not having a good day.’ I asked him what his problem was. There were tears in his eyes. ‘Until I got here tonight, it wasn’t my day to eat. I couldn’t wait to get here tonight.’
“That hit me right in the gut. It’s a memory that drives me every day. I don’t want to hear a child tell me that it’s not his day to eat. Likewise, no parent should have to decide which child in a family can eat today. Talk about a tough decision. My decisions as CEO pale in comparison.
“Eliminating that question – ‘Which of my children are going to eat today?’ – from family decisions motivates me and our entire staff every day of the year.”
Fitzgerald’s involvement with Second Harvest began in 1982. Since then he has been a board member, a fundraiser, a community advocate and he has served as board chairman three different times.
In July, David D’Annunzio, the Chief Financial Officer of Truliant Federal Credit Union, joined the board of Second Harvest. The Food Bank has 36 board members. D’Annunzio joined as the chairman of the IT Task Force and is now a member of the Executive Committee.
“Like all aspects of life today, technology can be a tool to enhance efficiency,” D’Annunzio said. “For Second Harvest Food Bank, that means helping more people who require assistance in meeting their daily food needs.
“Second Harvest expects that technology will play a major role in helping every aspect of reaching its mission: A brighter future for all by cultivating a healthy, hunger-free community.
“Technology is and will be important throughout the Second Harvest’s activities, from the logistics of transporting food, to communications, fundraising efforts and daily operations. We believe all aspects of the organization can be positively enhanced through the greater integration of technology,” D’Annunzio said.
This isn’t D’Annunzio’s first time sitting at the table of an organization dedicated to feeding the hungry.
“I have given my time to food banks and food kitchens in each of the communities I have lived,” D’Annunzio said. “I believe there is no more fundamental need to be met than food and nutrition, and it’s always difficult to hear about those who don’t have their basic food needs met – especially children,” D’Annunzio said.
“We are honored and privileged to have David on our board,” Fitzgerald said. “He brings lots of great insights to our work. David is a brilliant fellow. He has a great perspective. He’s good at asking questions of us, which is really important as we continually strive to improve our services. Truliant is a great partner to help spread the word of our mission.”
Second Harvest Food Bank numbers
The impact of the work and mission of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest N.C. is evident in the numbers, which also illustrate in a frightening way just how serious the problem of hunger and food insecurity is in this region:
• When Second Harvest started in 1982, it distributed 9,000 pounds of food that first year. Today, it distributes more than 38 million pounds of food a year.
• Second Harvest moves 37 tons of food a day.
• One in every six people in the 18-county area is food insecure because they don’t have the economic means to purchase enough food.
• Families are making difficult choices: food or medicine; food or rent; food or education.
• Second Harvest has 470 partner programs that include small pantries, community meal sites, soup kitchens, backpack programs, summer meal sites for kids, senior meal programs and more.
• Volunteer hours – about 45,000 a year – give the Food Bank the equivalent of 23 additional full-time employees.
• The biggest role for volunteers is inspecting and sorting donated food – much of it coming from retailers and wholesalers. The volunteers build pallets of food that are then delivered to the partner programs.
• Second Harvest has an annual budget of more than $9 million that comes from donations and it has a staff of 67 employees, most of whom are full time. Second Harvest operates in warehouses that total more than 105,000 square feet.
Where food meets need
In Thomasville, N.C., a proud community that was driven to economic prosperity by the furniture and textile industries, the burden of food insecurity today reaches many families because of the factory closings and layoffs during the last 15 years.
According to Mary Jane Akerman, the Executive Director for Communities In Schools of Thomasville, 98.6% of all the students in the Thomasville City Schools qualify for free or reduced lunch rates. CIS is a part of the Second Harvest Food Bank network
Communities In Schools is a national nonprofit organization that works inside schools in high-need areas. Communities In Schools focuses on building relationships and empowering students so they can succeed inside and outside the classroom, https://www.communitiesinschools.org.
“We know that all of our students live in poverty,” Akerman said. “The factory closings and the layoffs have had a devastating impact on the local economy. Our program addresses basic needs: food, school supplies and clothing. We want to help young people overcome the barriers that keep them from becoming successful.”
Rather than bring attention to the few students who have economic resources, the Thomasville City Schools provides all 2,400 students within the system a free breakfast, a free lunch and a free dinner that is delivered to all classrooms in to-go bags.
Akerman and her organization fill in the food gaps that exist beyond the school-day meals. They have a backpack program, food-pantry nights and a cooking class. Second Harvest Food Bank plays a significant role in making all of these extra programs possible. Akerman said that all the food that Second Harvest provides costs about $100 a week. Some of it is free and some has a small per-pound charge.
“When I started in my position a year ago, they had been working with Second Harvest for five years,” Akerman said. “One of the first things I did was call Peggy Robinson. She is the program manager at Second Harvest. I wanted to make sure we were following all the rules. What I discovered was that we were not doing all that we could.”
A year ago, Akerman’s organization was providing 40 backpacks of food a week that kids in elementary and middle school could take home for the weekend. They have increased that number to 70 by sending notices home to parents and training teachers to better recognize symptoms – and by no longer announcing over the loud speaker that backpacks are ready to be picked up. The public announcements increased the stigma of participating in the program.
Now, the students come to the pantry a few at a time and they are able to “shop” for their own backpacks.
“By having students select what they want from the pantry they have a much higher degree of ownership,” Akerman said. “They have control over the kinds of food that are selected for their families. And our volunteers love this new process. They are volunteering because they want to help. Now they can relate to the kids rather than just packing backpacks. It has really increased volunteer satisfaction.
“We know the backpacks are for the family,” Akerman said. “But there is only so much you can put in a backpack. They get a protein, a soup, two vegetables, a quart of milk, a breakfast item, a snack item and a pasta.”
Akerman schedules pantry nights at the end of the month – when families usually run short of food and money – and during holidays like Christmas. Holidays and snow days aren’t worth celebrating for children who are food insecure. Holidays and snow days eliminate a critical food source for food-insecure children. “For our kids, they miss three meals each day there is a holiday or a snow day.”
“On our open pantry nights we allow parents to come and get food,” Akerman said. “Fortunately, we are able to offer frozen meat, bread and dairy products, things that we can’t put in a backpack. We serve on average about 100 families each night, providing about 2.5 tons of food each time. Obviously, all families aren’t participating. Many families get food support from other sources, but there also can be a stigma attached to this kind of help and some families won’t come to a pantry night.
“But we are operating differently now than we used to, so we hope our participation increases. We always ask our families for feedback. One of improvements that we’ve made is that our families feel respected and not judged. We work hard to do that. We want our families to feel comfortable.
“When we hold our volunteer-shopper-orientation programs, the first rule is that you have to be respectful of the person you are serving,” Akerman said. “I appreciate that Second Harvest has the same philosophy on serving people with food insecurity. It really touched me.”
One of the new additions to the programs in Thomasville is a weekly cooking class for 4th and 5th graders. There are 10 kids who are taught by a Second Harvest Food Bank volunteer. Akerman hopes it won’t be long before they can teach the classes on their own.
“Each week we make a different recipe. Then we send the ingredients home so they can cook it for their family,” Akerman said. “It has been such a big hit.”
Unfortunately, the services of Second Harvest have been growing at a troubling pace over the last 10 years.
“In 2009 we served 135,000 people,” said Fitzgerald, who will retire this month, “and we distributed 7 million pounds of food. Today, we are serving 300,000 people and distributing over 38 million pounds of food. That’s more than a five-fold increase in food. And it’s still not enough.
“The driving force in food insecurity is unemployment, underemployment and the Great Recession. The majority of the people we serve have a job – and some have two or three jobs. But they have low-wage, minimum-wage jobs and no health insurance. They are making hard choices between food on the table vs. medical vs. housing vs. other costs.
“Food is generally the fall guy. That’s why food insecurity is such a serious issue. We will continue having a huge food insecurity problem unless we start putting people back to work in good jobs.
“The largest problem I have to deal with is misunderstanding and apathy,” Fitzgerald said. “People think hunger doesn’t exist in their community. It is a pervasive problem in Northwest North Carolina. Unfortunately, Guilford and Forsyth counties are national leaders in food insecurity. That’s not a statistic you want to lead in.
“I’m always surprised when I hear how much food is wasted in the U.S. each year – 133 billion pounds. We try to obtain as much of the unutilized waste as possible. There is enough food to feed everyone in this country. The challenge is to get that food to the people who need it.”
Many ways to help
D’Annunzio encourages everyone to help the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina. There are many ways to make a contribution.
“Second Harvest needs your help in many ways,” D’Annunzio said. “Helping isn’t limited to food and monetary donations. Your time donation is valuable. I’ve given my time by painting food bowls for a fundraiser, sorting food and helping organize the food warehouse. There’s always a need for donations of your time.”
For more information about Second Harvest, call 336.784.5770.