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If you’ve ever donated to a neighborhood, company or school food drive, you’ve helped make a difference for hungry families in your community. It’s an easy and direct way to help ease hunger. But did you ever wonder what happens after the cans are collected?

Food banks all around North Carolina work every day to put those donations to good use. And there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes in to getting food from a donation bin to the table of a family in need.

I talked with Jennifer Caslin and Molly Rivera from the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina (CENC) to get an idea of what it takes to get nutritious food into the hands – and mouths – of those who need it most. Here’s what they shared:

Food banks provide more than your typical can of soup.

When people think of food banks, many immediately assume that they only distribute canned or boxed “non-perishable” food. But the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina and many of the food banks in the Feeding America network make it a priority to provide as much fresh produce, meat, dairy products, eggs, and bread as possible to families in need. “Half of what the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina distributes is perishable –these are fresh, nutritious items that are critical for a healthy diet,” Jennifer told me. Thanks to their strong partnerships with local farmers, packers and retail stores, last year the Food Bank of CENC distributed more than 19 million pounds of fresh produce.

While items with a long shelf life, like canned goods, are still a staple in food bank pantries, more and more food banks are emphasizing the importance of fresh, nutritious food donations. This helps to ensure the health and wellbeing of those they serve, especially children. Donations of fresh fruits, vegetables, and canned foods that are high in protein and low in sodium are always welcome.

Food banks are built on teamwork.

Most food banks primarily distribute food through emergency food providers such as food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters. The Food Bank of CENC also works with other community partners such as after-school programs and senior centers. The majority of these groups are completely run by volunteers and many of them are only open a few days out of the month. And they typically don’t have the necessary resources or infrastructure to consistently collect, store and distribute large amounts of food.

That’s where the food banks come in – food banks serve as these emergency providers’ primary and reliable source of food. “The Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina (CENC) provides 65% of the food that our more than 800 partners distribute,” according to Molly. “It’s a great partnership because these community agencies help get the food to people that need it, and develop strong personal ties with the people we serve.”

When disaster strikes, food banks respond to the scene.

“ The Food Bank of CENC has responded to natural disasters and extreme weather events in our 34-county service area over the past 20 years,” Jennifer said. “We work with other agencies such as the Red Cross to collect and distribute much-needed disaster relief items including food, hygiene items, and cleaning supplies.”

 When flooding from Hurricane Floyd hit the eastern part of North Carolina in 1999, the Food Bank of CENC stayed open 24 hours a day for three months after the storm, providing 5.3 million pounds of disaster relief items to 15 counties.

Many hands make light work: volunteers are always welcome.

“The many hours donated by volunteers each year at the Food Bank of CENC double the power of our staff. Last year alone, volunteers gave more than 189,000 hours of their time to the Food Bank,” Molly reported.

Volunteers sort all of the produce, eggs and food drive items to not only ensure the food is safe to eat, but also to help organize the food into manageable family-sized portions. Volunteers also provide key support in other areas of day-day operations such as front desk administration, database management and special events.

We want to offer a huge thank-you to all the community volunteers – our neighbors – who help keep the food banks running smoothly! Find out how you can also volunteer with your local NC food banks: Food Bank CENC, Second Harvest Food Bank (Metrolina), Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC,  Manna Foodbank.

About Allison Bonner

Allison Bonner works in Community Relations at BCBSNC where she coordinates and oversees community partnerships and employee volunteer opportunities. She’s deeply passionate about giving back to the community and changing the world one small step at a time.