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How To Help: Loaves and Fishes

In my last post, I talked about reaching out and being useful to others when depression makes me feel useless, and promised to give some examples of ways to help other people. Today I met with Sue Bruce, communications manager at Loaves and Fishes, a Charlotte nonprofit that runs area food pantries to provide assistance to families in crisis. When they opened in 1975, they fed 1,000 people in Mecklenburg county. In 2016, they distributed 1.4 million pounds of food to feed 67,509 people, 48% of whom were children.

Clients are referred from community resources such as the local Department of Social Services, Goodwill, Crisis Assistance Ministry, school counselors (“We get a lot of referrals from the schools,” Sue noted), and others. The 18 full pantry locations provide a week’s worth of groceries, prorated by family size. They also have several mini-pantries located at Goodwill, Crisis Assistance Ministries, Department of Social Services, Jewish Family Services, and several of the local college campuses to provide two days of food to hold clients until they can get to the main banks. The mini-pantries at UNC-Charlotte, Johnson C. Smith University, and Central Piedmont Community College’s Central campus are up and running currently, with mini-pantries opening at all the CPCC locations by the end of the year.

Shelves are set up to give volunteers an example of what clients see at a pantry location.

With only 12 people on staff to serve a county of over a million people, Loaves and Fishes relies on long-term volunteers to staff the food pantries and to take incoming referrals at the phone center, as well as short-term volunteers who come in to sort food prior to transport to the pantries. The organization receives food and monetary donations from individuals, nonprofit partners such as Second Harvest and the Society of St. Andrew, and from businesses, including Publix and Harris Teeter. Donations come in to the warehouse, where they are sorted and distributed to the food pantries in the network. Monetary donations are used to purchase perishable items, including eggs, yogurt, milk, bread, and meat, so that clients can provide balanced meals for their families; those funds can also be leveraged to buy non-perishables in bulk. A great thing about how Loaves and Fishes runs their pantries is that they use a Client Choice model, meaning that instead of people being handed a random grab bag of food they may or may not be able to eat, clients get a set number of points and get to pick out the foods in each category that their families can use.

.This time of year, there is a lot more empty space on these shelves than anyone would like to see.

Walking into their main warehouse area, I was struck by just how bare the warehouse shelves were. “We’re definitely low this time of year,” Sue said. “When donations start rolling in at the holidays, these shelves will be full.” Summer is the time of greatest need, and from the end of summer to the start of the holiday season, the warehouse and the pantries run low.

The signature red barrels Loaves and Fishes uses to collect donations at food drives.

Ways To Help If You Live In The Area:

  • Donate Food. This is the big one! You can drop off donations of non-perishable foods during operating hours at any of the Loaves and Fishes pantries, or at the warehouse on Griffith Rd (in the Fordham Business Park–knitters know it as the same business park where The Fibre Studio at Yarns To Dye For is located). Check the website for a list of their most needed food items.
  • Hold a Food Drive or Fundraiser. I’m currently helping with a food drive at my apartment complex; other good ideas for places to host a food drive are businesses, places of worship, or social groups. You don’t even have to provide your own containers to collect the food in; they have barrels there that you can request, and are working on developing a more-portable collection box option for upcoming events. They’ve also received donations from fundraisers ranging from kids’ lemonade stands to “wear jeans to work” days.
  • Volunteer. The greatest need for volunteers is on an ongoing basis, to work the phone center and the pantries. Because this involves an investment of time and training on the part of the organization, they ask that people signing up for this be able to commit to a regular shift at least once a month. For those who don’t want to commit at that level, there’s also the option to go into the warehouse and help sort food. It doesn’t require training, is open to people 15 and older (on Saturday mornings, ages 6-9 can volunteer with parents, and ages 10-14 can help if there’s one adult in the group for every 6 children), and can be a one-time activity.

Ways To Help From Anywhere:

  • Virtual Food Drive. The Virtual Food Drive feature on the Loaves and Fishes website allows you to pick out the amount you want to give based on the retail prices of the items you would like to donate, then complete your transaction through PayPal.
  • Donate Money. I know none of us want to hear the M word, but this is one of the biggest needs they have. Donations are tax deductible, and Charity Navigator rates them at 4 out of 4 stars, with 84.7% of their revenue going directly into the program itself.
  • Host a Fundraiser on Facebook. Go to “Create Fundraiser” and select that you want to raise money for a nonprofit. Then search for “Loaves and Fishes Charlotte Mecklenburg.” Note: this option does take 5% in fees, but the money goes directly to the organization. The fundraiser runs for a set amount of time, and is shareable to friends and family.
  • Get involved in your community. With the way food pantries here are struggling, the ones near you probably are too. It’s a seasonal issue, not one of location.

Who Benefits:
Anyone referred by the appropriate community agencies. Though public agencies like DSS can’t give help to undocumented immigrants, “We don’t care here,” says Sue. “We don’t ask. We care about feeding people.” This was important for me to hear, because there are people I really care about who are undocumented or covered under DACA.

Loaves and Fishes does a lot of good in a city where a lot of people are struggling. According to their impact report, 93% of their clients worried about running out of food before having money to buy more, and 92% have actually had food run out before. If you’re looking for somewhere to get involved and to be useful, this is one I can highly recommend.

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