Originally created 07/04/99

Column: Food bank needs public, private partners



(Editor's note: The author, Michael J. Firmin, is executive director of the Golden Harvest Food Bank.)

TWO RECENT striking events in our community compel me to write.

The first was the annual National Association of Letter Carriers Food Drive on May 8, the largest one-day food drive in the United States. Over 115,000 pounds of food were delivered to Golden Harvest Food Bank. No other food bank in Georgia received more food that day!

This set a new record for Golden Harvest, thanks to the generosity of the city letter carriers, rural letter carriers, area postmasters, hundreds of individuals who donated food and the local companies lending the use of their trucks. I would also like to thank the many volunteers, including many soldiers from Fort Gordon, who gave up their Saturday afternoon to help transport the food donations to the food bank's warehouse on Commerce Drive.

THE SECOND event was the annual SRS Food Drive where the Projects Engineering and Construction Division at the Savannah River Site raised over $30,000 in its annual food drive for Golden Harvest Food Bank. "Can You FillFeel The Hunger?" was this year's food drive theme with a goal of $20,500 that was easily surpassed.

This generous donation ensures the distribution of 150,000 pounds of much-needed grocery items and provides 112,782 meals. This breaks the record, set only four weeks previously by the letter carriers, as the largest food drive ever in the 17-year history of Golden Harvest Food Bank! Every dollar donated to Golden Harvest is converted into $7.42 worth of food. The PE & CD employees at SRS have made the food/fund drive their own personal commitment to giving something back to the community.

I have also received two notes recently which further show the depth of com-mitment in our community. The first was one I found recently on a bag of food donated to our Letter Carriers Food Drive: "Henry -- If you don't have room for all this, leave it and we will take it to the PO on Monday. -- Bob"

A donor named Bob wanted to be certain his letter carrier, Henry, could handle his donation! Bob is obviously very committed to caring for his needy neighbors.

The second note was a reply to a thank-you letter I'd written: In it, I'd made a comment to the effect that some folks might be wondering how people could be in genuine need in such a "robust economy." Well, our donor responded that she never asked such a question because she had "... seen too much not to know the need. That is why I send the monthly pledge. ..."

Food banks are locally-governed, non-governmental grass-roots efforts created by concerned citizens of both political parties; from churches and from business; wealthy, middle class and poor who share one goal: that no one should go without enough food to sustain their bodies and their minds. Food Banks are the voice of those who cannot speak loud enough to get the help that they need.

But are food drives and food banks the whole answer? Realize that Golden Harvest distributes about 350,000 pounds of food per month. Our two record food drives don't even equal one month's needed output! Research sponsored by the food bank in 1997 indicated that here in the CSRA, Golden Harvest could plan on a growth in distribution of an additional 5 million pounds, up to an annual output of 10 million pounds! And this is in a "good economy" with the food stamp program in place.

Who are the hungry? They are the desperately poor, the terminally sick, the mentally feeble, the hopeless old, and the defenseless child. Every day they pour out their stories. We serve them every day, pound after pound of donated food from our warehouse, and ladle after ladle of soup at The Master's Table. We love them every day, saying that we do care and that there is meaning to life.

Local government must take the lead and become a partner with the private sector, both for-profit business and nonprofit charity, to meet the needs of all the people. The federal government has a legitimate role to play in ensuring basic rights for all. The food stamp program has been refined and linked with a work requirement and is the primary safety net for the poor; but it does't meet all needs.

Local government, on the other hand, must take a proactive role in identifying cost-effective means of solving problems, not the least of which is the right against hunger. The cost to us and our government in lost human potential due to hunger and malnourishment is enormous. A recent HUD report made headlines in The Chronicle by ranking Augusta in the top five percentile of poverty residents among communities of its size! Yet, paradoxically, for the last five years Golden Harvest has found it quite difficult in getting local government's help in fighting hunger.

LOCAL CITY and county governments should actually be looking for partnerships with organizations, especially nonprofits, to provide cost-effective means of fighting hunger and other social problems which prevent the decay of the quality of life of our society.