As the winter-based “season of compassion” approaches, Alaskan residents turn their attention towards the socially vulnerable, generously making donations of food and money.
It has to be holiday marketing that inspires this focus, because as the Salvation Army trumpets, “Need knows no season.” Yet, like toy stores, food banks and food pantries receive the lion’s share of their donations between Halloween and New Year’s day.
Usually housed inside of a church or, like Mother Lawrence, an individual’s home, food pantries are an immediate service that is easy to define. In contrast, food banks reside in warehouse districts and possess the ability to store upwards of a million pounds of food.
The New Hope on the Last Frontier food pantry on 13th and E Street is a good example of how this mutually-beneficial relationship assists the community. The food pantry receives most of the 232,353 pounds it distributes from Food Bank of Alaska, located at 2121 Spur Road in Anchorage.
In total, some 102,180 Alaskans face “food insecurity”, a term invented by government officials to measure “hunger.” Hunger is hard to define, being a subjective experience, thus, food insecurity objectively measures a neighbor’s inability to access food. If a neighbor does not possess the raw monthly income or relationship web to eat on a consistent basis, that neighbor is food insecure.
A 2012 FRAC (Food Research and Action Center) survey conducted by Gallup used this language:
“Have there been times in the past twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?” In this report we define an answer of “yes” as reflecting “food hardship.” FRAC uses this phrase to avoid confusion with the Census Bureau/USDA study that produces annual ‘food insecurity’ numbers, but the concepts are comparable.”
On an interactive online map, Feeding America, a national think tank and advocacy group for food banks, gives specific numbers for various geographical sections of Alaska. It estimates the Juneau area has 3,450 men, women and children who are food insecure. However, the report states that Juneau’s food insecurity could be resolved by a few dollars a day. In this case, an additional $2.88 per meal or $11.64 per day.
Due to the challenges of Alaska’s geography, Feeding America estimates that an $55.6 million is needed to address food insecurity throughout the State.
Against those numbers, it is easy to become discouraged. However, service-based groups seek ways to manage the challenge.
“We follow the hedgehog principle here,” Anne Weaver, Chief Operating Officer of the Fairbanks Community Food Bank said. “The hedgehog does only one thing and only one thing when it is attacked, or stressed. It curls up into a ball. Same here. We do only one thing: collect and redistribute food.”
In 2014, eight employees helped feed 35,000 Interior Alaskan neighbors with 2 million pounds of food. It is estimated that the average Alaskan citizen facing hunger is in need of an additional 234 pounds of food to remain healthy.
The hedgehog principle comes from Jim Collins’ 2001 book on management, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. The point is to focus on and perfect a service/product your team can deliver better than anyone else. In this case, it is the traditional 1967 food banking model developed by John van Hengel at St. Mary’s church.
Mr. van Hengel observed a mother of 10 picking through a grocery store’s showroom rejects. She mumbled that it would be easier if all the packages were gathered and sorted out like a second harvest. Mr. van Hengel ran with the idea, securing a $3000 investment from St. Mary’s church and an empty bakery. In 1967, the first food bank in America distributed 250,000 pounds with only three volunteers it’s first year. 
15 years later, a few churches in Fairbanks joined the growing movement, circulating 12,000 pounds in 1982. Progress resulted in the hire of an executive director three years later and 300,000 pounds distributed annually by 1990.
Thanks to a focused, activist-minded board, all development happens in a business-like manner.
The 48,000 square foot building at 725 26th Avenue is a mixed use facility. Before entering the warehouse area, downstairs hosts a community conference room, where meetings are scheduled out weeks in advance. The American Red Cross lives upstairs. Across the street is the campus of the Interior Alaska Center for Nonviolent Living Shelter and behind the food bank is the Fairbanks Rescue Mission.
This kind of efficiency results in only 12% of the budget supported by federal funds. 88% of food resources are harvested from the local community.
“We wouldn’t be able to do all that we do without our volunteers,” Ms. Weaver said. “Last year, 22,000 workable hours were given to us by 1,800 individuals. They were elementary school children, who washed grapes and repacked eggs. We had Kiwanis groups and Rotarians who visited us and packed boxes. Thousands of businesses gave us two hours here and four hours there for food drives and events — retired folks, families, and everyone with time to share.”
To volunteer in Anchorage, please call Christ O’Brien at 907.222.3112
To volunteer in Fairbanks, please call Lacey Greenfield at 907-457-4273
To volunteer in Juneau, please call 907.789.6184