At food bank, holidays come with high demand

Protein is a rare thing in Rod Wieber’s world. And the chief resource officer for Second Harvest Food Bank is especially aware of the protein shortage during the one-two punch of Thanksgiving and Christmas – two holidays that traditionally call for turkeys and roasts for dinner.

“We are just barely keeping pace with the need,” Wieber said a week before Thanksgiving. “Hunger is this runaway freight train that’s been coming our way for the last 3  1/2 years. In November alone we need 2.1 million pounds of food.”

Second Harvest surveys its clients once a year. This year’s survey was done in August, and Wieber shared a few numbers:

• Thirty-six percent of clients said they only get one serving of fruits and vegetables a day.

• Twenty-five percent of clients said they can’t provide food for themselves or their family because of unemployment.

• One in 5 clients said they visited the food bank for the first time in 2011.

“We are still feeling the recession and I think it’s going to be a while before we stop feeling that,” said Wieber.

With Thanksgiving over and the warehouse practically empty, Wieber is looking ahead to Christmas.

“There is no question about it: We need to source more food,” Wieber said. “In 2010, we processed 20.5 million pounds of food – that’s up 60 percent over the past three years. If we were a for-profit company that would be really good, but we are not. Being up 60 percent is not good news.” Wieber said it’s projected that in 2015 Second Harvest will need 28 million pounds of food.

Looking ahead to Christmas, what does the food bank need?

Protein is always at the top of the list. It can be canned meat, like chicken and tuna, or canned hearty soups and stews. Fresh fruit and produce are always needed, too.

Donations of shelf-stable foods such as cereal, rice, pasta and beans are down – but the need is up.

Kid-friendly food such as granola bars and other quick nutritious snacks are in high demand, too.

And just because Thanksgiving is over doesn’t mean it’s too late to donate a frozen turkey.

“Hams and turkeys are definitely cool after Thanksgiving; we need them, and they are great for Christmas,” said Wieber.

It’s a challenge for food banks to process fresh fruit and vegetables because the shelf life is short and often there’s a lot of sorting involved.

To help that process along, Second Harvest is remodeling part of its warehouse to improve produce sorting. Conveyor belts will carry fresh fruit from the warehouse into a sorting area, making it easier and more convenient for volunteers to do the sorting.

“The conveyor belt will be right at waist level. There will be a lot less straining and lifting involved,” said Wieber. A separate belt will carry any spoiled fruit out.

The conveyer belt system also can be used to sort cans when the big bins from various food drives come in. The new sorting room also keeps volunteers warmer and out of the way of forklifts and trucks coming and going in the main warehouse area.

Over the last couple of years Wieber said that Second Harvest has seen an increase of cash donations from businesses that give to the food bank in lieu of a holiday party or traditional Christmas gifts to clients.

Every dollar Second Harvest receives can be turned into 6 pounds of food. Cash donations make it possible, for instance, for Second Harvest to pick up fresh apples donated by farmers in Wenatchee.

“The fruit is free, but we can’t get it if we can’t pay for transportation,” said Wieber.

Once Christmas hunger needs are met, is there a sense of relief in early January?

“No, not really,” said Wieber. “Come January, we still have a long three or four months of winter ahead of us.”

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