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Closing the gap on hunger is year-round challenge for Second Harvest Food Bank

Amanda J. Vicars • Jan 14, 2013 at 10:02 AM

Imagine for a moment a hopeless sense of emptiness; a rumbling stomach, a gnawing ache in the pit of it, left continuously unsatisfied without the sustenance which fuels all life on Earth: food. With leftovers from holiday feasts still lining many local residents' refrigerator shelves, this feeling may be a foreign concept for some. But for 101,000 people living in poverty across Northeast Tennessee, hunger pains are a daily reality.

The Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee, a "Feeding America" organization, has been fighting hunger in eight surrounding counties since 1986. From the 1 million pounds of food distributed the first year to over 7.8 million pounds distributed during the 2012 fiscal year, over 38,000 people are now fed each month.

With plans to move to a larger warehouse in 2013 to increase food distribution and facilitate more programs, events and exciting initiatives around the region, Second Harvest hopes to further decrease "the gap on hunger" and fill the bellies of even more children, working poor, unemployed, elderly and homeless.

Second Harvest, one of five food banks in Tennessee and one of over 200 in the nation, has stood at its current 24,500 square-foot location in Gray since 1997. Serving as the primary source of food for over 200 agencies, the organization rescued 3.1 million pounds of perishable food from businesses last year for redistribution.

To meet the spatial needs of its growing operation, the food bank purchased the old Sam's Club building in Kingsport in July 2012.

"The reason we're moving to this larger building is because we've run out of space," Executive Director Rhonda Chafin said.

The new 112,087 square-foot warehouse is undergoing required renovations before the scheduled move can take place.

To fund these renovations, Second Harvest has a building budget of $1.37 million - outside of its fundraising goal of $1.77 million for the 2013 fiscal year.

Talking to individuals, corporations and foundations in the community, "we're looking for supporters in those areas," Chafin explained. "The building is the community's and this organization is the community's."

"We would love to be in the facility by June," she added.

Since the food bank is not government run, it relies on community support for funds.

"We're supported entirely through donations and grants," said Kathy Smith, community relations director.

Events and drives are already scheduled to raise food and money for Second Harvest in 2013. On Jan. 21, Martin Luther King Day, many area grocery stores will be hosting a food drive and, on Feb. 9, the AAA Travel Show at the Millennium Center will offer a discount price of entry with any food donation.

In January and February, the 2013 Ice Bowl - in support of the Second Harvest Food Bank - will hold disc golf tournaments at four area parks, donating half or more of their proceeds to the cause. The Junior League Food Drive is scheduled for April 13 and the Letter Carriers Food Drive will be held May 11.

The food bank also holds two annual fundraisers: The Annual Golf Tournament (set for April 29) and the Farmer and Chef Fundraiser (scheduled for Sept. 12).

Although events such as these make a huge difference, almost half of the operational budget goes to purchasing food for distribution.

"We just don't get enough food donated," Chafin said.

For those in need, food supplies dwindle in the winter months and in the summer when children are out of school.

"A lot of people have to choose between feeding their families and paying the electric bill," Smith said sadly.

Food bank programs help "fill the gaps." With only 4 percent of Second Harvest's costs going to fundraising and administration, the remaining 96 percent goes to its programs.

The Food For Kids Backpack Program supplies "chronically hungry" children in all 15 school districts with 15 bags of food throughout the school year to carry home over weekends and long breaks; 4,251 kids received backpacks in 2012. Over 100 children are on a waiting list for the program and sponsorships are needed; the cost to sponsor a child is $93 per year.

The Summer Food Service Program utilizes three used school buses to serve children at 30 different sites; 1,365 were fed last year.

The Mobile Food Pantry, one of Second Harvest's fastest growing programs delivers to low-income, food-insecure children, seniors and families; 1,600 people are served monthly.

Over 10,000 volunteer hours were provided in 2012, but the hunger issue is nowhere close to resolution. The Second Harvest Food Bank asks every local resident to do their part.

Everyone can do something, whether it's donating money, food or their time, Chafin said.

"We could close the gap and that's what it takes."

To make a donation, to volunteer, or for more information on the Second Harvest Food Bank, visit the website at www.netfoodbank.org or call 423-477-4053.

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