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Area food bank closer to reality

POSTED: July 31, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Rich D. White is helping launch a food distribution center to help local food pantries and kitchens, the Georgia Mountain Food Bank.

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Those who serve Hall County's hungry know that rising food and energy costs mean more people are having to make choices between their bills and their bellies.

But they also know that while many are not getting the nutrition they need, there is no shortage of food.

To Kay Blackstock, administrative assistant for the North Georgia Community Foundation and project director for the Georgia Mountain Food Bank, feeding the hungry of Northeast Georgia is a no-brainer.

"There is plenty of food going to waste ... and there's no reason why anybody in the U.S. should go hungry," Blackstock said.

Blackstock is spearheading the campaign to reroute local food from the garbage can to a food distribution center that would serve those who serve the hungry in Hall County. Blackstock is a student of Atlanta Community Food Bank Founder Bill Bolling, who operates the largest food bank in the state with a philosophy that there is always enough.

Hall County's nonprofit agencies currently rely on private donations. Twenty-five of those agencies receive monthly deliveries from the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which serves 38 Georgia counties.
But those agencies, and the people they serve, would be better off with the help of a local distribution center, Bolling said.

"It's really hard to figure out how to get to those outlying cities. It's hard to serve those people well," Bolling said. "Having (local) folks say ‘we'll be the center of activity,' that's a tremendous help at feeding people."

Brenda Wiley, director of the Lula Connection, which provides food from the Atlanta Community Food Bank to 150 people once a month, said it would be a lot easier for her nonprofit agency to serve people if the food was easier to obtain.

When all 25 agencies have to pull from the Atlanta Community Food Bank's menu in one week, variety can be limited, Wiley said.

"There's just so much more you could do if (the food) was close," Wiley said. "... It would definitely be better pickings."

Founders of the Georgia Mountain Food Bank say that the concept of a local food distribution center for nonprofit agencies is nearly a reality. Rumblings of a food bank, on Hall County's menu for nearly 10 years, should come to fruition by the end of the year, Blackstock said.

Now, as its founders have possible sites for the food bank in mind and sift through applications for an executive director, they say getting this close to a distribution center has been a long time coming.
Blackstock remembers the earliest talk of the food bank, which she hopes will eventually serve 15 counties in Northeast Georgia, in 1999.

"We couldn't keep our foot on the gas long enough to keep the momentum going," Blackstock said of the early conversations.

But in the past two years, Blackstock has refused to let the momentum die. After spending months doing her homework and researching the purpose and structure of food banks, Blackstock invited about 45 members of the community to a breakfast in March 2007 to see how they felt about having a large food distribution center for Hall County nonprofit groups.

"All of the folks that attended said ‘you know, the time is now,'" Blackstock said.

Since then, Blackstock has made it a point to keep fueling talks of the Georgia Mountain Food Bank until it finds an actual site in Hall County.

The food bank's board of directors meet weekly for breakfast and a brainstorming session on how to pull all their needs together in the last few months.

For starters, the board needs a 15,000- to 20,000-square-foot warehouse, shelving materials, trucks, forklifts and freezer space, said Rich D. White, chairman of the Georgia Mountain Food Bank's board of directors.

Not to mention money. The shared maintenance fee will not bring in enough revenue to keep the doors open, White points out.

"To do this good work, we've got to raise the money ... and then we'll start to see the benefits," Blackstock said.

Bolling started the Atlanta Community Food Bank in a church basement in 1979 and continues to direct it in a 130,000-square-foot building that serves 800 organizations in the state. Keeping the doors open requires a variety of funding sources and the ability to beg, he said.

"Hall County has a tremendous amount of resources; it's just a matter of leveraging them," Bolling said.
But White said it has been difficult to accurately portray the board's vision.

"One of the toughest things we've had to do is give people the right perception of what it is we're trying to do," he said.

The Georgia Mountain Food Bank will be a wholesale operation that will collect donations from corporations and private donors, then distribute food to agencies whose mission it is to feed people, White said.

"This is not just another food pantry; what we're talking about is a wholesale operation ... distributing food at a more convenient location and at a very good price," he said.

Members, nonprofit and faith-based organizations would pay a shared maintenance fee for the food -- just cents on the pound -- to the food bank for handling the collection and distribution.

"We'll do the work that the smaller organizations are scrambling around to do," Blackstock said.

Wiley likes the idea of having the Georgia Mountain Food Bank take care of collections, because it would give all the nonprofit groups in Hall County a greater variety of food.

"I think that way it would be a fair exchange ... if it was all put in one pile, everybody would have a fair chance," Wiley said.

Centralizing food collections would also make it easier for the companies that choose to donate food, Wiley said.

"It would probably be easier for companies to keep up with and probably keep all the different people from bugging the companies to death," she said.

Board member John Nix said the main reason he got on board with Georgia Mountain Food Bank is that he cannot think of anything else that would touch more people in the community. And that's one of the greatest benefits of having the food bank.

"We're blessed to have a lot of organizations whose mission it is to help people in need," Nix said. "Our mission is going to be that they have not only the quantity, but the quality to meet that need."

Bolling, who sees 1,000 volunteers walk through the doors of the Atlanta Community Food Bank each month, agrees. He says the key to the Georgia Mountain Food Bank's success will be its ability to continually involve members of the community with myriad talents and backgrounds.

"We're so divided. We need a food bank to do more than feed people," Bolling said. "We need a food bank to bring us all together."



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