‘Neighbors Helping Neighbors’: Midwest Food Bank Builds Relationships with Pennsylvania Agriculture

A global pandemic might not seem like a good time to start a new venture to most folks. But for a food bank with a mission to feed those in need, it was the perfect time to get started.

“Thank goodness we opened during COVID,” said Lori Renne, executive director of Midwest Food Bank, Pennsylvania. “Budgets were being stretched, people were looking for additional sources of food, and we were able to answer that call.”

The Pennsylvania division of the faith-based charity was established in January and immediately began filling a need. Since opening, they have been able to assist more than 100 agencies and give away $1.2 million in food. They continue to grow their reach each month.

Midwest Food Bank was founded in 2003 by a farmer from Illinois. The organization has since expanded to 10 domestic locations and two international operations. Pennsylvania is their ninth location.

The organization attributes its growth—in part—to building strong relationships with state and county Farm Bureaus in the areas where it operates and is working to make similar connections here in Pennsylvania.

The model is simple and effective, Renne said. They rely on private financial donations, food donations, and a large network of volunteers from all walks of life to accomplish their mission. They are able to take those donations and supply food to local food pantries, respond to natural disasters, and support school food programs.

They also produce their own dry meal packages called Tender Mercies, which are individually packaged rice, bean and protein meals that can be prepared just by adding water. They are a great resource for delivering nutrition quickly and cheaply, Renne said, and can be combined with fresh ingredients as well. One serving costs about 20 cents to make. They also have developed recipes to transform the versatile meal packets into a variety of dishes, like soup bases, casseroles, or tacos.

“It’s great on its own, but when you combine it with some other fresh products, it’s really impactful,” said Renne. “So, if you get peppers from a farmer, we could teach them to make stuffed peppers.”

Midwest Food Bank prides themselves on their low administrative costs. “The secret sauce is our volunteers,” Renne said. “It’s important for us to have a very lean operating budget so we can focus money and resources to those in need.”

Midwest is able to direct 99 cents of every dollar they receive to those in need. And their large network of volunteers allows them to gather and distribute excess food to where it’s needed, at no cost to their partners. 

Midwest aims to support and work in tandem with the existing charitable food system. The organization is able to efficiently gather food donations not only from local sources in Pennsylvania, but from their own network across the country. This is a big help to local food pantries and agencies in the local area, because Midwest is able to get products that other organizations may be lacking. And in this way, they can be a great resource to those who are working directly with needy families and children.

With nearly 1.4 million Pennsylvanians experiencing food insecurity, Midwest’s presence was a welcome one in the state.

“We empower those who are already in the trenches feeding those in need, “ says Aleta Serrano, divisional board president. “We act as a conduit of the resources that God has given us.”

Rescuing food that would otherwise go to waste and getting to where it is most needed is an important part of that mission.

“What amazed me when I first started in this industry was how much of the food supply gets wasted every year,” Renne said. “It’s about 40 percent.”

Whether it’s excess truckloads of canned tomatoes, mislabeled cranberry packages, or even eggs that are too small to sell to a grocery store, the volunteers at Midwest are willing to take in products to their warehouse in Dauphin County and leverage their network of truck drivers to deliver them to whenever they’re needed.

“Our heart really is to rescue food if we can,” said Serrano.

One example, said Renne, was a farmer two-and-a-half hours away near Pittsburgh who had apples he couldn’t sell. Midwest was able to get a truck and some volunteers out to the farm to pick up the apples, which were then distributed to their various partners.

While Midwest has been building partnerships for food sources over the last few months, including getting things like cereal from Kellogg’s, they are still looking to get sources of fresh, nutritional foods to supplement those supplies.

“We would love to work directly with farmers,” Renne said. “Developing those relationships are at the top of our list.”

Renne says that not only could they help distribute food that would otherwise go to waste, but they could also help introduce their volunteers to opportunities in agriculture. For instance, if a farmer had extra produce that couldn’t be sold, Midwest could arrange a group of volunteers, perhaps kids from a day camp, to come pick it, and their network could distribute it where it was needed most.

“Our ask is: Help us feed our partners with healthy food,” said Serrano. Along with the great prepackaged products that Midwest has access to, she said, “we want to be able to feed them fresh food, too.”

And Midwest is always looking for volunteers, and farmers are often great candidates, since many have experience driving semi trucks and operating forklifts.

Midwest Food Bank is continuing to grow, and as they do they are looking to expand their outreach, and continue to make new partnerships across the state, said Renne.

“Sadly, people need food. We’re blessed to be able to provide it. Any farmers that would like to come see our operation, they’re welcome to come here anytime for a tour. We love to show off our facility and showcase what we’re doing here,” she said.

And with so many finding themselves in need, the mission of Midwest Food Bank may sound familiar to many farmers as well.

As Renne puts it: “We’re just neighbors taking care of neighbors.”

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