Food for Thought
Expanding the scope of Wilmington's food bank
BETH GAGLIONE has been at the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina in Wilmington for over eight years, serving as the Wilmington branch director. Before moving to Wilmington fourteen years ago, she worked with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank in Ohio. “My father was diagnosed with diabetes when I was very young, and since that time, I think that I knew that I wanted to do something that would support people having access to better and more food,” she says.
The Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina’s mission, she says, is to “Nourish people. Build solutions. Empower communities.”
The organization recently moved to a new facility on Greenfield Street. Bolstered by a $1 million donation from nCino for the project, the 5,000-square-foot building is almost three times larger than the food bank’s former facility.
Can you describe the new facility?
“Amazing. A dream comes true. More than we expected it would be. Ultimately, the new infrastructure and facility will support community resiliency. We are excited to have the space to truly be a Food Bank for the community and connect with our neighbors.
The new facility will not only allow us to distribute more food but will offer a market where the local community can access fresh food, and we will operate a commercial kitchen to produce meals for our community, respond to disasters like Hurricane Florence and train workers for the hospitality industry we rely on so much in this area. There will be an urban learning farm on-site, expanded opportunities for volunteers and more strategic and targeted nutrition education.”
What prompted building a new, larger building?
“When you shop at your local grocery store, you have learned that the food that is best for you is located at the outer edges of the store. Our Food Bank’s solution to having healthier foods is adding more space for refrigeration and freezer capacity. With added cooler space we can have more produce, meat and dairy items available to those helping fight hunger and ultimately to our friends and neighbors.
The design and construction of the building also needed to factor in severe weather so we can still operate following a storm. Including the commercial kitchen in the new space will allow the Food Bank to produce highly nutritious frozen meals to distribute in response to disasters. The kitchen will be able to produce 5,000 meals per day if we need to respond to a disaster like Hurricane Florence.”
How have the needs changed over the past five or 10 years for the services the food bank offers?
“The Food Bank’s mission has expanded over the years beyond nourishing people. While feeding people is a huge part of what we do and will continue to be, the Food Bank is working to build solutions to ultimately end hunger. Hurricane Florence and the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need in our community even further. To do that work, we need to make a shift in how we operate.
With many, many partners, the Food Bank has committed itself to look at the root causes of food insecurity and build sustainable solutions. This requires a focus on our community’s health and was the reason the Food Bank created a division called Community Health & Engagement. To truly be solutions focused in our region, we need to commit to expanding on the work of empowering communities.”
Is there anything that’s surprised you (in any way) over the years in your role?
“On Sept. 14, 2018, Hurricane Florence made landfall, and it brought 8 trillion gallons of rain and created a 10-foot storm surge. More than 1 million people lost power, and the storm is estimated to have caused $17 billion in damage. The response needed after Hurricane Florence is unlike any disaster relief the Food Bank had undertaken.
Following the storm, the Food Bank distributed more than 6 million pounds of food to neighbors who were impacted. While I saw how the hurricane affected my own friends and neighbors, I never dreamed that there would be so many people still trying to rebuild their homes today, almost five years later.
Really, what many of them have had to do is rebuild their lives. It has been the most humbling part of the work I have done in this sector over the 25 years doing it.”
What’s next, both short term and in the next few years?
“As the Food Bank expands, so can our work in nutrition education. Our partners, like Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard and Catholic Charities, have found recipes, classes and cooking demonstrations make a real impact on health and well-being. The commercial kitchen we have today will play a key role in furthering these efforts. Giving someone a rutabaga and telling them how to bake or stew it is one thing. Showing a person how to chop rutabaga, season it and cook it on a stovetop is a whole other level of being involved in a person’s ability to prepare fresh and healthy foods for their family.
The kitchen will also allow the Food Bank to work with individuals that want to invest in a future in culinary arts. A workforce development program that the Food Bank will partner on with Cape Fear Community College will not just offer training but also a stipend to support living expenses and the tools they need to continue their career in a restaurant, hotel or catering kitchen. A trained culinary workforce in our community is vitally important to the local economy that is dependent on vibrant tourism. Being positioned to build a person’s skill set to acquire meaningful work and a living wage in Wilmington is solutions focused.
Another major goal of the Food Bank is to help our agencies expand their capacity. After the extensive damage of Hurricane Florence, we knew we had to support them to become more resilient as well. With that in mind, our team has offered their assistance in securing funds to do that. Our Network Engagement team works with our partner agencies to identify projects we can help them complete – things like new equipment or facility improvements – that will allow them to build their own capacity to serve more and be more resilient following natural disasters. In other words, building resiliency includes building the capacity of our partners in hunger relief, too.”
To view more of Aris Harding’s work, go arishardingcom.
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