BIG FLATS — Ironically, Food Bank of the Southern Tier is based amid a mecca for consumer spending — yet its purpose is to serve a population that often can’t afford a decent meal.
This year the food bank marks its 10th anniversary along Consumer Square on County Route 64, just off Route 17 in western Chemung County. The 12,230-square-foot facility, which serves as a six-county clearinghouse for donated foods, is surrounded by Arnot Mall as well as numerous other stores and restaurants.
“To be located in a place with high visibility is a real plus for us. Often, across the country, food banks are located in industrial sites,” said Paul Hesler, executive director. “The more people see us, even if they don’t know us, the more we’re in the minds of people.”
Frank Carey, director of development, said the food bank strives to maximize that visibility, such as with the large sign recently erected outside the complex as well as the sizeable agency logos on the bank’s new trucks. This promotion will help in “bringing the communities to recognize that we are regional, not just local,” Carey said, noting that a perception still partially exists that the food bank serves Chemung County only.
“Only about 12 to 13 percent of our agencies are located here. The others are in the other five counties we serve,” Hesler added. “So the people we do serve are just not in our back yard.”
Food Bank of the Southern Tier serves as a conduit for donations from food producers, government food programs and food distribution centers. The items are rechanneled to nearly 200 charitable agencies in Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Tioga, Tompkins and Broome counties. All those counties are located within the Diocese of Rochester except Broome, which is in the Syracuse Diocese.
The food bank was founded in the early 1980s and was formerly located on Grand Central Avenue in Elmira Heights. Then known as Southern Tier Community Food Bank, the agency eventually sought to move due to an aging building and lack of sufficient freezer and cooler space. “We used to have to turn down food,” Carey remarked.
Construction work for the current food bank began in 1993 and was completed the following year. At that time, many of the businesses now dotting the landscape were new or had not yet gone up.
“We were able to plop down on a piece of property that, today, has commercial value that exceeds anything we can afford,” Hesler said.
Catholic Charities of the Southern Tier is the food bank’s parent organization. The bank also belongs to the Second Harvest National Food Bank Network, which serves as a national link to growers, processors, manufacturers, distributors and retailers.
Whereas food donations from individuals are certainly welcomed by the food bank, Carey said that donors can help to an even greater degree through cash gifts. He explained that the funds go largely toward transportation costs; for instance, the food bank delivers more than 90 percent of its goods to member agencies. In addition, Carey and Hesler said that produce is currently in great abundance, but the bank must budget to go pick up these goods.
These are the types of challenges that make the food bank a rather unique operation, from Hesler’s perspective. “Food banking, at some levels, is very different from other not-for-profits. We operate as much a business as a mission, with the warehouse and trucking,” he observed.
Donations are also needed to help offset the needs of a rising number of hungry people due to a poor economy. Along with the unemployed, Carey noted that many area people hold down jobs at, or near, minimum wage and can’t afford groceries for their families.
The food bank is also contending with a drop in donated food from manufacturers. According to Hesler and Carey, those companies have developed more sophisticated ways of producing food and don’t have as much to spare. In addition, a rise in discount grocery stores has caused would-be donations of food from manufacturers to be rerouted.
“We don’t have ill will against that. If you’re a food manufacturer and you had the choice between a profit and a tax write-off, you’ll take the profit,” Hesler remarked.
Despite some of these struggles, Hesler and Carey applaud the public for its ongoing aid to the food bank no matter what the economic climate.
“We’re very supported by our communities,” Carey said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about Food Bank of the Southern Tier, call 607/796-6061 or visit www.ccst.org.