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Food Banks Learning to Change With the Times

Attendees at the Closing the Hunger Gap conference heard about a Canadian food bank that transformed itself into a thriving community center with input from its clients. Credit: The Stop, Toronto, Canada.
Attendees at the Closing the Hunger Gap conference heard about a Canadian food bank that transformed itself into a thriving community center with input from its clients. Credit: The Stop, Toronto, Canada.
September 17, 2015

SEATTLE – Operators of food banks and soup kitchens across North America – including some from Washington – met this week at the Closing the Hunger Gap conference in Portland to brainstorm ways to make the emergency food system more effective.

The conference ended Wednesday, with the message that hunger-relief organizations can do more to fight the root causes of the problem – and engage the people they serve to help make the changes.

Miguel Jimenez, resource development coordinator with Rainier Valley Food Bank, says he's coming back from the conference with new ideas and energy, and a view of the bigger picture.

"We are really, really good at giving out food twice a week," says Jiminez. "Shifting the focus to addressing health, to addressing economic development, to being these agents of change in our community are really exciting opportunities for us."

According to Jimenez, everyday need is still climbing. Rainier Valley Food Bank has seen a 59 percent increase in clients in the last four years, and serves more people now than during the depths of the recession.

About 450 conference participants discussed the need for greater political involvement by food banks and other groups that see the results of hunger firsthand.

Nick Saul, president and CEO and Community Food Centres Canada, is considered an expert in the field. Saul transformed a single Toronto soup kitchen into a network of sites with resource referrals, gardens, cooking classes, a speakers bureau and more. He wrote a book about the process, named for the first site, The Stop.

Saul told the conference crowd it begins with serving a quality meal to those who need it.

"I guarantee you, it'll be the best meal they eat in a long time," he says. "They look up from that food and say, 'Wow, how can I get involved?' In a whole range of ways that are much more participatory and less stigmatizing than standing in a line and being handed not terribly healthy food."

Conference attendees talked about modernizing a food-banking system that has been around for decades, serving healthier foods, and forging partnerships with grocery stores, farms and restaurants to waste less food.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA