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Tulsa food bank pushes for more fresh food, produce

July 30, 2018

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — There was a time when virtually all of the food distributed by the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma involved boxes.

People in need could grab some sort of dried foods, such as macaroni and cheese or ramen noodles, from a huge warehouse of food.

Now, upward of 41 percent of the food distributed by the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma is fresh: vegetables, fruits, meats.

“We know so much more about health outcomes and wellness,” said Eileen Bradshaw, executive director of the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. “It is fun to see. We work with our partners to be very mindful of getting the fresh produce to those in need.

“It is all about time, about logistics. You have to be mindful of getting the fresh food in a timely manner to those in need.”

The science of healthy eating, and the impact on wellness, has dramatically changed over the past 20 years.

So food banks across the country, mindful of the improved knowledge, have been transitioning to get healthier food to folks.

It involves changing the types of donors, and the types of donations, and then the logistics of quickly getting fresh food to people.

Recently, the food bank’s wellness committee, focused on the health of staff and volunteers, entered into an agreement with Local Farm OK, a local community-supported agriculture cooperative. There was a strong response, and Local Farm started making weekly trips to the food bank with extra produce, the Tulsa World reported.

“That’s the perfect example of another way we’re always looking to expand our programs, both with a donor and identifying ways to get the product distributed to those in need,” said Greg Raskin, communication manager for the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.

As part of the shift to more fresh food products, the food bank has been expanding donor programs throughout the eastern half of the state.

They receive weekly — in some cases, up to five times weekly — donations from grocery stores, restaurants and farmers.

“We’ve got agreements with just about every grocer and many farmers in our area to pick up fresh produce,” said Bradshaw. “There was a time when much of that fresh produce wound up in a landfill.

“What we’ve been able to do is to capture that fresh produce while it is still good and get it distributed. Our No. 1 concern is food safety.”

That means a lot of coordination of the logistics.

It is no small task. More than 40 percent of the 28.2 million pounds of food distributed is now fresh.

That translates to about 450,000 meals per week.

“I think that number — 450,000 meals per week — is something that surprises a lot of people,” said Bradshaw. “And, honestly, we’re not meeting the full need here in eastern Oklahoma.

“I think it is hard for most of us to understand. Yet there is a reality that so many people out there live with food insecurity every month. Most of those people have jobs and are just trying to take care of their family.”

So the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma is constantly searching for new and innovative ways to get additional donations and find ways to distribute.

In many cases, with the fresh food, it is no longer possible to pick up donations, take them to the warehouse and then send them out with a distribution truck.

“In many cases, we now go directly from the donation point, let’s say a grocer, and we take it directly to one of our partner agencies, which distributes it immediately to those in need,” said Bradshaw. “We don’t have time to bring it to our warehouse and then send it back out. Time is essential when you are talking about fresh produce.”

Even with the shift to fresh foods, the number of donations to the food bank continues to grow.

Donations to the food bank, and the number of people helped, have grown at an astonishing rate recently — up nearly 80 percent in the past seven years.

The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma has 72 full-time employees and nearly 12,000 volunteers.

In recent years, the refrigerated and freezer storage area at the warehouse has grown, too.

“It has been great to see the shift over the years,” said Bradshaw. “Many of the things that used to go into the landfill are now rescued by us while still good and nutritious.

“Some of it is brought here and turned into prepared meals in our kitchen. Some of it is put into the hands of people who need it very quickly.”

And the search for creative ideas continues.

The food bank works with Southwood Landscape and Nursery in Tulsa on a program that encourages tomato gardeners to donate a portion of their crop to the food bank.

“The need is not abating. We continue to grow as with the need,” Bradshaw said.

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Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com

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