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Photos by Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Community Harvest Food Bank celebrates the completion of renovations Wednesday.

Food bank stoked about bigger digs

Leigh Stiles-Olin, unemployed and a mother of seven children, shops with her daughter Suriana at the food bank Wednesday.

– Community Harvest Food Bank officials were thrilled with the completion of renovations at their Tillman Road facility and celebrated with tours and a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday.

The renovations are part of a $5 million capital campaign for Community Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Indiana.

New building features include an expanded Community Cupboard, a grocery store of sorts; a new cooler and 5,000-square-foot freezer; an improved reclamation and storage area; two new and improved truck docks; and a large staging area for packing and storing specific program supplies.

The second floor, previously unfinished and used for storage, was fully remodeled. All corporate offices along with a conference and break room were moved there.

The enhanced facility is now three times larger, said Claudia Johnson, food bank spokeswoman.

A newly expanded staging area will allow employees and volunteers to pack hundreds of bags of groceries that go out to seniors and children each week through the SeniorPak, Kids BackPack and Kids Café programs.

About 70 percent of students in Fort Wayne Community Schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, said Krista Stockman, district spokeswoman. And while they get healthy meals and snacks at school, that is not always the case on the weekend, she said.

The backpacks are packed with two days’ worth of nutritious and kid-friendly food and distributed to area children just before the weekend. The SeniorPaks food packages are delivered every two weeks to hundreds of homebound and low-income seniors, Johnson said.

The low-sugar and reduced-salt food items are packed and delivered by volunteers who use their own cars and gasoline, Johnson said.

The new reclamation area allows workers to sort through each food item that comes through the door, checking expiration dates and the item’s condition before it goes out to the Community Cupboard or in one of the program packs. Shelves with towers of food line the walls on every side.

Some donations are massive and involve a tractor-trailer rig, Johnson said, while others are small.

“Every morning when we come to work, there are usually a few bags of fresh produce hanging on the door,” she said, smiling. “It’s cute.”

Several new truck docks will allow tractor-trailer rigs to unload and load with ease – a vast improvement over the old docks, which obstructed the driver’s vision and created hazards, Johnson said.

In the new cooler, stacks of boxes containing melons and cherry tomatoes are surrounded by milk and eggs and other dairy products.

“Even with all of this,” Johnson said, gesturing toward the ceiling-high towers of food, “we will never eliminate hunger. We can only help alleviate it.”

The renovation completes the first phase of the capital campaign. The second phase, expected to begin soon, involves undertaking a large-scale blanch-and-freeze operation that could become a model for other food banks in the country.

It would be housed in the enormous warehouse and kitchens on North Coliseum Boulevard, donated by the Azar family five years ago. The operation would preserve and freeze perfectly good and safe produce that would otherwise be thrown away because it did not meet stringent quality standards.

Currently, Community Harvest Food Bank has 36 full-time and two part-time employees and about 5,000 volunteers, Johnson said.

Although the food bank was the brainchild of a group that wanted to help feed the hungry after the International Harvester plant closed in 1983 and left hundreds jobless, the building was not built until 1993, Johnson said.

Under the umbrella of Feeding America, Community Harvest Food Bank is the largest hunger-relief organization in northeast Indiana and distributes about 11 million pounds of food annually to those in need.