Reinventing Food Banks

Stephen Sherman

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a forum From Feeding People to Ending Hunger: Reinventing Food Banks, a forum hosted by the Social Enterprise program at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. The panelists represented organizations working to address hunger at the national, state, and local level and provided a layered perspective on strategies for ending hunger in the U.S.

The event included remarks from Kim Hamilton, Chief Impact Officer at Feeding America, Jon West, Vice President of Programs at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and Jeremy Lewis, Executive Director of Urban Recipe.

Each of these organizations is doing its part to fight hunger: Feeding America is a nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs that provides food and services to more than 46 million people each year. The Atlanta Community Food Bank is part of Feeding America’s network and partners with more than 600 nonprofit partners to distribute over 60 million meals to more than 755,000 people in 29 counties across metro Atlanta and north Georgia. Urban Recipe operates within a unique co-op model in which each family served becomes a member of a 50-family co-op that meets biweekly to apportion donated food.

During the forum, each panelist highlighted the growing scale of hunger in America and the inability of food banks to simply keep up with the demand for assistance by offering access to donated goods. Feeding America reports that in 2015, 42.2 million Americans and 13 percent of households were food insecure. Among the states that demonstrated higher household food-insecurity rates than the U.S. national average, each of the top five states and seven of the top 12 were in the Southeast.

While the number of families in need of assistance has declined in recent years, the level of need among those still requiring help has deepened considerably. While some food banks have been able to increase their number of meals provided through automation and process improvements, they have come to the realization that this will not be enough to keep pace with community needs, let alone eradicate hunger.

Seeing that they could address the problem either by increasing the number of meals provided or by decreasing need, many food banks have shifted resources from just providing food to attempting to address the root causes of food insecurity. As central gathering points for resources and individuals in need, food banks are uniquely positioned to effect collaborative change. At the national level, Feeding America has begun partnering with other nonprofit networks to improve coordination on efforts designed to address such as issues as financial literacy, access to health care, and affordable housing. Part of the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s Atlanta Prosperity Campaign includes an outreach program that connects families and individuals in need with public benefits for which they qualify and thereby helping them secure free assistance with food, child care and more.

Among the states that demonstrated higher household food-insecurity rates than the U.S. national average, each of the top five states and seven of the top 12 were in the Southeast.


At Urban Recipe, co-op members themselves work to address the needs of their group as well as the broader community. When each co-op meets every two weeks, the members have an opportunity to check up with each other, discuss community challenges, and work together to develop solutions. Following the suggestion of its members, the organization has even helped launch a free medical clinic, which serves residents of metro Atlanta who are uninsured or have Medicaid. The clinic provides quality medical care for routine primary care needs, chronic illness or disease, and help with prescription medications.

Each of the organizations represented at the event demonstrated how food banks can leverage their assets – physical space, knowledge of benefit programs, social networks, etc. – to address the growing need for services in non-traditional ways.

These are just a few examples of how nonprofits have developed collaborative and innovative solutions to address long-standing problems. Foundations have a role to play in fostering this type of collaboration by bringing together nonprofits in each community that address persistent, systemic problems like hunger or homelessness. Nonprofits will also continue to look to private funders to offer the initial investments needed to pilot innovative solutions to these stubborn problems.

We look forward to hearing how you’ve worked with nonprofits and other partners in your community to address similar needs, whether it’s in the comments section below or in a future post.

Stephen Sherman is SECF's research and data manager.


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