Volunteers fill shopping carts with groceries during the July 15 food distribution event.
Established 12 years ago in the wake of a global recession that left millions unemployed, the Chesterfield Food Bank Outreach Center recently has been called upon more than ever to mitigate the impacts of what Executive Director Kim Hill calls “back-to-back crises.”
In 2020, amid COVID-related job losses and skyrocketing demand for assistance, the Chesterfield facility distributed nearly 4 million pounds of food – or three times as much as it had the previous year.
Prior to the pandemic, it served between 8,000 and 10,000 clients in a typical month. Those numbers exploded once COVID hit, consistently reaching 30,000 to 40,000 monthly, with community support increasing to meet the need.
Now it’s facing a different kind of challenge: Inflation at levels not seen since the 1970s has created significant budgetary pressure for both low-income households and those who previously could be counted on to make regular food and monetary donations.
“The amount of those still in need has stayed consistent. People, though willing, find themselves unable to give as they have previously,” Hill said.
And yet, somehow, the Chesterfield Food Bank Outreach Center’s staff and volunteers keep finding additional ways to serve the community.
The nonprofit rebranded as an outreach center last year to signify its newly expanded mission of “fighting hunger and empowering lives.”
“Food insecurity is just a symptom of underlying causes,” said Nick Jenkins, who joined the organization as assistant executive director in 2019. “To empower our clients, we must address the roots of what they are facing, not just the symptoms. Our outreach programs take us into the community, especially into areas that are at-risk and vulnerable. We are working to identify the underlying causes and connect people to resources that will improve their quality of life.”
Volunteers load groceries into clients' vehicles outside the Chesterfield Food Bank Outreach Center.
While Hill noted that food still “finds its place in everything we do and offer,” Chesterfield Food Bank Outreach Center is no longer just a place where people in need come on Friday night to pick up a shopping cart full of free groceries.
In collaboration with a coalition of local churches, it conducts regular outreach to people living in motels along Route 1, offering food for both their bodies and their souls. Similar efforts are made to connect with the county’s homeless population. The food bank outreach center also is developing a client advocate program that assists people seeking additional help, facilitating access to government services, drug detox and rehab centers, mental health services, workforce programs and more.
“Our approach is to be relational with each client. We want to hear their story, understand the obstacles they are facing, and help them see the opportunity for change,” Hill said. “Substance abuse, untreated mental health disorders, a lack of support systems, not having gainful or any form of employment, not understanding how to navigate governmental services they may qualify for, and [lack of] skill training are all examples of underlying problems that can result in food insecurity.”
The food bank outreach center’s hard-earned reputation as a safe place with caring, non-judgmental people has positioned it to take on such an expanded role. Now, however, it’s running out of space due to the increased volume of work performed on a weekly basis to meet the community’s needs.
Hill used part of Chesterfield’s $500,000 allocation in federal CARES Act money to acquire commercial cooler and freezer units, purchase four refrigerated trucks and expand on-site parking to prevent vehicle traffic from backing up onto Route 10 during food distribution events.
The new industrial appliances and vehicles have enabled the food bank outreach center to increase its stock of perishable food, both fresh and frozen, but they also have a large footprint in the facility’s warehouse area.
A planned expansion and renovation project will double the warehouse’s square footage, expand current office space, make needed repairs and create a two-story addition with offices for other nonprofit and likeminded community-based organizations – offering “wraparound services” such as health care, mental health, financial literacy, workforce training and bilingual services.
“Our location already serves tens of thousands of people monthly, so we desire to be able to identify their underlying needs, and instead of handing them a list of numbers, walking them down the hallway to their next step towards a more stable, healthier life,” Hill said. “We believe that through partnerships, we can truly impact our community for generations to come.”