Greater Cleveland Food Bank President Kristen Warzocha On a Year of Unprecedented Hunger and the Organization’s New HQ

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  • Greater Cleveland Food Bank

  • One of the many Muni Lot distributions from the past year

The economic carnage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic has pushed Cleveland’s support systems to their limits. Lost jobs and lost wages have put Northeast Ohio families in perilous financial binds, with thousands wondering how they’ll pay their rent, mortgage, utility and medical bills. More than ever, Clevelanders have also been left unable to feed their families. In this time of historic need, the Greater Cleveland Food Bank has been there.

We talked with CEO Kristen Warzocha about how it’s been able to step up to the plate, and what waits around the corner as the Food Bank gets set to break ground on a new headquarters.

Sam Allard: I’m fully aware that the answer is probably “everything,” but let me start by asking, ‘How are things different for the Food Bank today than they were one year ago?’

KW: Well, it has truly been an extraordinary year. Last March, when Gov. DeWine issued his stay-at-home order, we had a number of huge challenges thrust on our plate essentially overnight. The first, of course, was the skyrocketing need. It was like nothing we’d ever seen in our 40-year history. The second was volunteer cancellations. We had 1,400 volunteers cancel in the first two weeks. Volunteers are critical to our operation. They help us make meals in our kitchen, they help us sort and package donated food. We can’t do this work without them. We usually have 21,000 volunteers in a year. Last year, we had half that. Third, food donations began to slow very quickly. We had about a 50% decrease in our traditional food donations.

SA: Why so low?

KW: Because there wasn’t a surplus. The Food Bank was founded to distribute surplus food from the food industry and serve it to the hungry. But do you remember going into grocery stores, particularly right at the beginning? There were empty shelves. So we were contending with all those things, plus the fact that a few hundred of our partner agencies were forced to close for safety reasons.

SA: Out of how many total?

KW: About 1,000. Those are program partners across our six-county service area. These might be programs that provide free meals to kids after school in a school setting, summer meals for kids, senior meals at congregate sites. When so many of them shut down, we had to pretty quickly fill in the gaps.

SA: Like with the muni lot drive-throughs?

KW: Yep! For a number of years, we’ve done a fresh produce distribution the third Thursday of every month. On a busy Thursday, we’d see up to 1,000 people, many of whom were senior citizens with health challenges. So we knew we had to continue to do these, but also knew that we couldn’t have a line in our facility.

SA: It used to be done indoors?

KW: Right in our warehouse. People would come inside and leave with a shopping cart full of fresh food. So we decided that in March, we’d do the same thing, but as a drive-through at our facility on South Waterloo. The turnout was incredible. We had 1,200 families. That’s families, by the way, which are an average of three, not individual people. And based on that turnout, we knew we’d have to do them more often. The next week, we had 1,600 families and – you may remember the news coverage – the line was miles long in every direction.

SA: It was a circus.

KW: Collinwood and the Shoreway were completely shut down. Frankly, for safety purposes, we called the city and asked if we could move our distribution to the Muni Lot, and thankfully they agreed. So the third week, we did our drive-through there. That week, we had 2,800 families. The numbers just kept increasing. I, truthfully, thought we’d be in the muni lot for a few months. We are still there every Thursday.

SA: To this day? You’re still there every week?

KW: Every week. We’ve been there all year long. We’re going to be down there this afternoon.

SA: Have the weekly numbers gone down at all?

KW: Last week, we had 2,400 families. The week before Thanksgiving, we served 5,000 families. The numbers peaked in the first couple of months at about 3,600 per week. They started coming down when unemployment benefits and stimulus checks went out. They leveled out in late spring, early summer at about 1,700 families. And then as stimulus checks ran out, and as additional benefits became unavailable, the numbers started going back up.

SA: Are there restrictions for folks who can receive food?

KW: The Food Bank and its partner agencies serve people up to 200% of poverty. That’s about $43,000 per year for a family of three. We’ve developed an online registration system where people can see their income eligibility and register in advance, which cuts down on communication on site, and gives us a sense of how many people to expect. This is no-touch distribution.

SA: Do you have an end date?

KW: We do not. As long as the turnout remains high, and as long as the city will have us, we plan to be there.

SA: If your donated food went down by 50%, where did you get all this extra food to hand out to needy families?

KW: Thankfully, the community has been very supportive. That’s been the silver lining of a very challenging year. And we increased the amount of food that we purchased to fill the gap. And then the federal government rolled out a program called the Farm to Families program, which was intended to help farmers survive the pandemic. And these boxes from farmers were made available to nonprofits nationwide. We were able to access on behalf of our partner agencies millions of pounds of free food through that program. And that’s winding down, so we anticipate buying significantly more food this year than we did last year.

SA: I know you received a massive donation from MacKenzie Scott and other major private donations, including a $300,000 grant from the local Covid rapid response fund. Put those numbers in context. How much more did you receive in donations last year than in years’ past?

KW: As an organization, our total revenue was up 74% last year. Philanthropic contributions doubled, which was incredible and has allowed us to do things we never imagined and frankly never thought would be necessary. So for example, we provided 9 million more pounds of food last year than in the year prior and served more than 100,000 more people. Almost 1 in four residents in our six-county service area received food from either the Food Bank or one of our partners last year. It’s heartbreaking.

SA: A huge part of what the Food Bank does is provide food to partner agencies, small community pantries and so forth, correct?

KW: Absolutely. We are so proud and grateful to provide food and support to our partners. The majority of the food the Food Bank provides is distributed though that partner network. We also have done some direct service to clients, including the monthly produce distribution and outreach trucks in the community, and other social services. But when the pandemic hit, we stepped in to do more direct service than we’d ever done before.

CEO Kristen Warzocha - GREATER CLEVELAND FOOD BANK

  • Greater Cleveland Food Bank

  • CEO Kristen Warzocha

SA: Beyond actual food, what sorts of additional support have you provided your partners? Have they seen trickle-down benefits from the overwhelming philanthropic support?

KW: That has been a priority for us. Over about an 18-month period – this is from last March through this coming September – we’re providing about $16 million in support. That’s more than $6 million in disaster kits, which roughly a week supply of food in boxes that are packaged at the Food Bank by volunteers and by the National Guard. We’ve had close to 75 National Guard soldiers at the Food Bank since the end of March when all the volunteers canceled, by the way.

SA: They’re still there?

KW: They’re still here. We now have 49 of them. They’re here full-time, Monday through Friday. And we’re grateful because we still need them. One of the things they’ve been doing is packaging these disaster kits, which are largely purchased food. Many of our partners, just like us, have started some form of drive-through distribution on a smaller scale, so those pre-packaged boxes, while not ideal, are a best case scenario in a pandemic. We also have something called the Backpacks for Kids program – we’ve done $1 million more in that program.

SA: These come in backpacks?

KW: They come in bags, and they’re meant to go home in students’ backpacks. We’re critically worried about these kids in virtual school who rely on school lunches.

SA: Talk about an underreported scandal in Cleveland.

KW: I will tell you, child food insecurity has absolutely skyrocketed across the nation. And one of the main driving forces – of course it’s the pandemic – is that kids have not been in school where they not only learn, but get critical support like food. So we’ve increased that program and made those available to our partners, just trying to find as many kids as possible.

SA: Do you work with CMSD?

KW: Some. We have a lot of after school programs with CMSD and have what we call school markets at some of their schools, where we bring in fresh produce at the end of the school day for kids to take home. When CMSD schools closed, a lot of that food was not available.

SA: God, Cleveland’s already, what, #1 or #2 in child hunger nationwide? To see that exacerbated is just..

KW: It’s a crisis for low-income kids. There’s no doubt about it. So that’s been a big focus for us.

SA: Can we talk about this new building? I saw the Planning Commission Presentation last month and it was basically the first time I’d heard anything about it. Has all the planning been going on in secret?

KW: It has definitely not been going on in secret. The plans have been underway for quite some time. We determined in our last strategic plan, which our board approved in 2018, that we needed additional space. We’d been increasing our distribution every year for the 15 years that we’ve been in our current facility. We have more than tripled our pre-pandemic distribution and quintupled our distribution of prepared meals. We knew that if we continued on those trends, we’d run out of room in the not-so distant future. With the help of a capital advisory committee, we’ve been planning for this project since 2019. And then the pandemic struck and made the space all the more urgent. Now we are completely and totally out of room. We’re renting off-site storage. We have trucks that we’ve leased for storage sitting in our back lot, and we’ve still had to throw some food away, which we absolutely hate to do, but we literally have not had any place to put it or couldn’t distribute it quickly enough.

SA: This is non-perishable food?

KW: For various reasons, it’s a combination. We’re full. We’re more than full. So we’ve been working with our board, fundraising quietly, certainly answering questions from anybody who asks about it, and had been planning to announce the project at our groundbreaking in April, and then it went to the Planning Commission, which is of course a public meeting.

SA: Word got out.

KW: Like I said, we’ve been simply planning and answering questions as we went along.

SA: What’s the plan for the current building, then?

KW: So, we are building a new larger community food distribution center on Coit Road, which is about five minutes from our current location. It’s on a donated piece of property, which we’re thrilled about. Once that is complete, it will serve agencies directly. That’s where agencies will come pick up food and where our larger kitchen will be. Then we plan to renovate the current South Waterloo site and turn it into a client service center.

SA: What would that look like?

KW: For example, we will be adding a large on-site client choice pantry with flexible evening and weekend hours to serve working poor families, who struggle to get to a social service agency Monday through Friday 9-5. We also will be inviting other nonprofit social service agencies to co-locate and collaborate with us. We’ve been referring clients to agencies who are specialists in housing, health care and employment for a number of years now. Those tend to be the most frequent causes of food insecurity. But in many cases, transportation is a big issue for clients, getting from agency to agency to get assistance, so we plan to offer space to those agencies to remove those barriers.

SA: Are you at all concerned about the expense of maintaining two large facilities? Is that budgeted?

KW: It’s certainly something we need to be cognizant of, something we’ve talked about, and something we’ve developed projections around. We will continue to need philanthropic support in the future, but we also know that the need is there, and was there even before the pandemic. Our mission is to ensure that everyone in our community has the nutritious food they need every day. That’s the North Star.

SA: For sure, but isn’t it true that this year was an outlier, in terms of fundraising?

KW: For everybody.

SA: I think I’d be nervous that this level of support might not be sustainable long-term.

KW: This is something we’re trying to address today and tomorrow in our strategic plan. We know that we need to be good stewards of the funding we’re receiving today, and need to be aware that this increased fundraising will likely not last as long as the increased demand. That was our experience in the last recession. We had two years where fundraising increased significantly, and that helped us do more for the community, but when fundraising returned to normal, the need was still there for many years.

SA: Are you planning to increase staff size?

KW: Over time, absolutely. We’ll also need to increase volunteers to increase the amount of food that we distribute.

SA: You mentioned that the land was donated. What’s the story there?

KW: Vic DiGeronimo was a member of our capital advisory committee, the group that was helping us explore every option for how we might go about creating more capacity. After we decided that we didn’t have space at our current property to expand – which had been our first hope – he had mentioned this potential property to us. It was one of about 10 properties on the market that met our needs that were evaluated. Because of its location, it was one that rose to the top. And then he offered to donate it, which is incredible.

SA: And you’re planning to break ground this month?

KW: April 14. And we’re hoping to have the facility constructed and dry storage operable by the end of this calendar year because we need that storage so badly. And then phase two will be building out the freezers, the coolers, the kitchen, the volunteer space. And we’d love to open that facility next year, which we know is a pretty aggressive timeline, but the need is urgent.

SA: What’s the next year look like otherwise?

KW: Our plan is to distribute 58 million pounds of food this year, even without the increased federal support that we received last year. That means we will need to buy more food than we ever have before. It’s a tall order, but the need is there. And this is necessary. In addition, we are looking for other ways to help our partner agencies build capacity. We announced last week that we are providing $1.2 million in equipment to our partners to help them meet increasing needs. The fact is, just about every organization that provides food in this area gets all or part of their food from the Food Bank, and while there are large organizations that people have heard of, the majority of them are very small volunteer-run agencies with incredibly small budgets.

SA: Anything else related to food distribution that the region should be more attuned to?

KW: Just that it’s been a challenging year. A couple of weeks ago was the anniversary of the day that the World Health Organization declared this a pandemic. It’s been an uncertain year, a scary year, but I am impressed with the way our team and the community has stepped up to ensure that no one goes hungry. This has required an extraordinary team effort, and it’s not over yet. We’re planning to be at this for at least five years.

SA: Woah. Wait, at this level of distribution?

KW: God, I hope not. But responding to increased need, absolutely. The fact is, the pandemic has created economic impacts far beyond the spread of the disease. We’re gonna be busy for years, and we’re planning that way.