Friday, May 20, 2011

Fighting Hunger In Our Community: Merrimack Valley Food Bank

Hunger in our communities is real, a fact that too often gets overlooked. Within our county's towns and cities are organizations whose missions are to provide food to those at risk of hunger. It was my pleasure to sit down with Executive Director Amy Pessia and Board Member and Social Media Advisor Danielle Bergeron of Merrimack Valley Food Bank, one of our areas most prominent and influential anti-hunger organizations.

"The focus of the Merrimack Valley Food Bank is to help meet a person’s most profound need — adequate nutrition and freedom from hunger"

Merrimack Valley Food Bank incorporated as a 501(c) 3 non-profit shortly after being founded by the Lowell Transitional Living Center in 1991 as a response to the need for a central food distribution agency in the city of Lowell. While MVFB can be considered a fledgling organization at 18 years old, the strides this local food bank has made over the last two decades to expand it's efforts is overwhelming. The once Lowell Food Bank (prior to incorporating) that ran out of donated space and served 6 food pantries in a rented UHaul now serves 25 cities and towns in the Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. The people Merrimack Valley Food Bank serves may not be who you think, however. As Amy explained, this 20,000 sq ft. warehouse is the "hub of the food distribution network in the region", providing food to the pantries, shelters and food organizations that service the families and individuals in our communities. The role MVFB, all food banks for that matter, play in the food distribution process is critical. Not only do they obtain long lasting relationships with area food production companies, farmers and businesses, but they also provide a location at which food can be kept in large quantities (something that is a challenge for many smaller pantries and shelters).

"Only through cooperative efforts can society initiate change develop strategies to alleviate hunger and work toward the well being of all people."

As was explained by Amy and Danielle, Merrimack Valley Food Bank has teamed up with a number of individuals and businesses such as Walmart who donated an astounding $10,000 toward the purchase of food and Merrimack Valley Magazine who has adopted MVFB as their non-profit and supports their efforts by regularly printing ads for MVFB. Several radio stations have also joined forces with MVFB, one being FRANK FM who helped to raise $2000 and nearly 1600 pounds of food at a live radio food drive this past December. Even Merrimack Valley Food Bank member Lazarus House, "a phenomenal agency committed to helping people move forward with their lives", donated a box truck which is beneficial when delivering food through tight city streets.

"For most of us, food is readily available at nearby stores. The ease with which food can be acquired can make us take for granted how vital food is to our well-being."

The future for Merrimack Valley Food Bank is bright! In a few weeks they will commence their 4th season of Community Market. This fruit and vegetable market gives families living in low income housing the opportunity to shop for free once a week for produce that they may not otherwise be able to afford. Modeled after the Mobile Market on Cape Ann, this incredibly successful program has helped to feed approximately 162 families residing in the Lowell Housing Authority community each season, that number growing with the introduction of another housing community to the Community Market, the George W. Flanagan housing development. Local groups, schools and individuals such as Farmer Dave, Middlesex C.C., UMass Lowell and Greater Lowell Health Alliance volunteer food, time and educational services to the families who attend.. Local groups, schools and individuals such as Farmer Dave, Middlesex C.C., UMass Lowell and Greater Lowell Health Alliance volunteer food, time and educational services to the families who attend.

MVFB is also working to expand on another new program that is currently in the planning stages; The Backpack Program. Merrimack Valley Food Bank will work with the school's superintendent and teachers to identify children living in food insecure households and provide them with snacks, drink and small microwavable meal to take home over the weekend. As you can well imagine, children receiving free and reduced lunches will run into difficulty finding consistent sources of nutritious food during the times they are not in school and this innovative program will be a wonderful addition to the 8 programs MVFB is currently running. While there is a ways to go before this program is full in effect, the pilot program currently running is a success and a base of food donations, gift cards and supporting business is being gathered for the official launch. The future plans will be to incorporate this program into all schools within the district with 80% or more children eligible for free and reduced lunch, currently 5.

"We try to educate the community about hunger being a year round issue"

You may think after reading this blog that Merrimack Valley Food Bank is enormous, after all the space alone is 20,000 sq ft., but in actuality they have a mere 12 employees. For an organization that distributed approximately 2.6 million lbs of food last year, this number is extraordinarily low. There are right now 80 regular volunteers that help with everything from inspecting and sorting, to preparing meal bags for the Mobile Pantry, to helping plan, prepare and run the annual food drives and fundraisers. But helping hands are always welcome. Regular volunteer positions are available. Between the months of January-June, then again in November & December, MVFB is in need of volunteers to inspect and sort food at their warehouse. When asked about the summer months (July-August), I was told there just isn't any food to inspect or sort. Summer tends to be the time of year that people are preoccupied with other plans and the staff encourages people looking to host a food drive, to do so during the spring months to help offset the gap in donations. You can even contact MVFB for ideas on how to coordinate your food drive with the season. You can also contact MVFB if you would like to take part in or volunteer for one of their scheduled events.

Learning about Merrimack Valley Food Bank and all the wonderful programs they offer to those living with hunger was incredible. A special thank you to Amy Pessia Executive Director of MVFB and Danielle Bergeron Secretary on the Board of Directors, Fundraiser Committe for Grape Expection & Fall Pantry Raid and the Advisor for MVFB's Social Media Efforts, for taking the time to meet with me and share a piece of what they do every day. Please use the contact information below to contact Merrimack Valley Food Bank, volunteer for one of their events or make a donation to support their efforts.

Merrimack Valley Food Bank

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