'Tis the season for giving. And, giving to the hungry is important.
Harry Chapin Food Bank Associate Director Joyce Jacobs knows this all too well. Since joining the food bank board of directors in 1990, Jacobs has witnessed a steady rise in total food distribution. In fact, that number has increased from 6 million pounds in 2008-09 to 16.6 million pounds in 2012-13 alone.
"We couldn't do that without the generosity of the community," said Jacobs. "We have to work harder than most food banks in the country because we serve 150 partner agencies. Here, on the beach, we supply food to the Baptist Pantry."
The Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce asked its members to bring canned good donations for Harry Chapin Food Bank to its monthly meeting at Charley's Boathouse Grill last Thursday. The contribution was overwhelming as Joyce Jacobs, the associate director of the food bank and guest speaker at the meeting, kneels between Beach Chamber President Bud Nocera and Chairperson Norma Jean Pevey.
Last Thursday, Jacobs was the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Greater Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce at Charley's Boathouse Grill. Beach Chamber members were asked to bring in canned good donations and reciprocated with a reported 641 pounds of food.
"When we put the word out and asked you to bring some canned goods for the food bank, your response was heart-warming and amazing," Beach Chamber President Bud Nocera told those in attendance. Another Chamber luncheon will involve a similar drive this summer.
The list of food distribution for Harry Chapin Food Bank includes church pantries, rescue missions, Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, shelters and group homes in Lee, Collier, Hendry, Charlotte and Glades counties. Food is provided to more than 30,000 people monthly.
"We work for them," said Jacobs. "The only reason we exist is to get food, get it into our warehouse, inspect it, sort it, organize it and get it out to these agencies.
The local food bank has climbed to a four-star charity navigator rating. Before it increased its facility capacity to a 48,000-square-foot warehouse that holds 40,000 cubic feet of refrigeration and freezer space, the private nonprofit organization was located in an old section of a farmer's market.
Harry Chapin Food Bank has also developed a relationship with 15 local farms. Last year alone, it was able to distribute more than 4 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables due to that partnership.
The work of the local food bank could not be done without hard-working volunteers. More than 2,680 unpaid community workers collectively logged in 35,600 hours in 2012-13.
"Yesterday, they were bagging potatoes, green peppers and cucumbers and repacking beans and rice and packing up breads that we bring in from the bakeries," said Jacobs.
Harry Chapin Food Bank does all this work and distribution throughout its five counties with only one food manufacturer -Bagel Bites.
"We have no supermarket warehouses, no distribution reclamation centers, no Nabisco, no General Foods, no Procter & Gamble, so we have to work harder," said Jacobs. "We have 14 refrigerated trucks and all of our drivers have their food certifications. We bring in a lot of food from other parts of the state and the country. That's why for every dollar we bring in, we are able to put $6 in food value back out (to the community)."
With rising gas prices over the years, that endeavor has become more difficult.
"Fuel for our vehicles used to be about $20,000 a year. Now, with the price increase, it's about $7,000 a month right now to keep our trucks on the road," said Jacobs. "You can also imagine what it costs (in electricity) for 40,000 cubic feet of refrigeration space.
There are only 14 food banks in Florida, and Harry Chapin is one that covers the whole state.
Harry Chapin Food Bank also provides disaster relief. Jacobs is a member of the Fort Myers Beach CERT team.
"It's so important for us to be prepared if we are affected by disaster," she said. "We have heater meals and water on hand. Now that hurricane season has passed, we can distribute that."
Jacobs is seeing a lot of seniors in need of food these days. These seniors also have grandchildren that they appear to be raising in tow. Veterans are also in need of the service that Harry Chapin Food Bank provides.
The food bank official also broke down when she told a story about a man who stated he did not want to be at a local pantry, but couldn't feed his family.
"It's sad in our area that we have situations like this," she said.
In the past calendar year, The Harry Chapin Food Bank distributed more than 13.7 million pounds of food and other grocery items valued at more than $22.5 million. This is roughly the equivalent of 11 million meals to people in need.
"I really came here to thank you. We have such a wonderful community," said Jacobs. "Often times, hunger is invisible. One of our problems in our area is underemployment, or this time of year a lot of people have been out of work or are just working part time. While your bills stay the same, one of things cut back on is food. That's where the food bank comes in."
Hunger Walk to benefit food bank
The 6th annual Hunger Walk will take place at Miromar Outlets in Estero on Jan. 18, 2014. The walk, which boasts all proceeds benefiting Harry Chapin Food Bank, will begin at 9:30 a.m.
The family-friendly event invites walkers of all ages as well as pets on leashes. Participants are asked to solicit sponsorships from families, friends and other associates. Each walker is asked to set a goal of $50.
Pre-registration is preferred. Participants should register online at www.harrychapinfoodbank.org or be at event at 8:30 a.m. to register.