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Food Issue

How the Greater Boston Food Bank is meeting a growing need

From farm to everyone’s table: To meet rising demand, especially for produce, the Boston nonprofit had to start thinking more like a business.

Hubbard squash grown at Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon are a new offering this fall at the sprawling, efficiency-focused Greater Boston Food Bank.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Hubbard squash grown at Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon are a new offering this fall at the sprawling, efficiency-focused Greater Boston Food Bank.

ONE BY ONE, THEY FILE discreetly through the brown door, brawny and feeble, white and black, in T-shirts and button-downs, jeans and slacks. On this misty October morning, the Canton Food Pantry, in a cramped room at the back of the old high school building, is bustling. Only a few customers can fit at a time. Others wait in a row of maroon plastic chairs. Here, among the narrow aisles, the depth and diversity of need quickly becomes evident: Most of these people, it occurs to me, would not look out of place in line at Whole Foods.

The shelves are stocked with 28-ounce cans of Furmano’s Italian-style spaghetti sauce, 16-ounce bags of Goya barley, fresh eggplant, bread, apple juice, cans of green beans and black beans. The most talked-about item today, though, lies in a green shopping cart parked in the corner: a pile of blue-green Hubbard squash, looking like bloated, gnarled footballs, waiting for brave souls to bring them home.

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No takers at first. “It’s ugly squash,” one woman mutters. “I have no idea what that is,” a second shopper says. “I bet you if you put it outside the raccoons would eat it,” someone else adds. Halfway through the day’s two-hour shopping window, nobody’s touched one.

And then, just like that, a woman with cropped hair, red pants, and a gray sweater reaches in and takes a Hubbard without hesitation. At the counter, she is asked what she will do with it. “Make soup,” the woman says matter-of-factly, explaining how she will drop it on the ground to crack the thick shell. It turns out the woman, 48, is Haitian-American and plans to save it for New Year’s. (Many Haitians mark their country’s independence from France, on January 1, 1804, by making the squash-based soup joumou, which was off-limits to Haitian slaves during French rule.)

She’s a trendsetter. The very next shopper, an older woman in a dark red velour jacket, takes a Hubbard, followed a little while later by a middle-aged woman who grabs one, too. After two hours, the doors close. Twenty-seven people have come through the Canton Food Pantry. Three of four Hubbard squash are gone.

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Less than two weeks before, those Hubbards were still on the vine at a nearby farm. Over the course of 10 days, they were picked, sold to the Greater Boston Food Bank, and then distributed to food pantries like this one, and to other hunger-relief agencies in the area. The life of these Hubbard squash, from the field to the tables of the needy, helps tell the story of a bigger journey: the evolution and expansion of the food bank, which has matured into a state-of-the-art food distribution giant that now feeds more than 90,000 people a week.

The food bank made a splash a few years ago by building a new headquarters alongside Interstate 93 south of downtown. You’ve seen it — the one with 565 accent panels on the facade that, viewed from a certain angle, depict a red ear of wheat. If you’re like me, you’ve driven by and wondered, what goes on in that cavernous place, anyway? The answer is this: a lot more than I thought.

***

‘THAT’S A BIG BUILDING, Catherine!” Like many other I-93 commuters, Governor Deval Patrick had watched the Greater Boston Food Bank’s 117,000-square-foot Yawkey Distribution Center go up. Patrick, seeing food bank president and CEO Catherine D’Amato at an event, marveled at its scope. “I said, ‘It’s a big building because it’s a big problem,’ ” D’Amato recalls.

Indeed, the building, erected on a former incinerator site and funded with a $35 million capital campaign, made a bold statement when it opened in April 2009. But D’Amato and her team knew that having a modern warehouse and distribution center — one built specifically for this purpose — would dramatically expand their ability to feed people. They had maxed out their old facility, and were even turning donors away. Just like a business, the Greater Boston Food Bank needed to invest in order to grow.

Productivity soon soared. The food bank, which supplies more than 550 food pantries, meal programs, and shelters in 190 cities and towns, distributed 27.9 million pounds of food in its final full year in the old building. In the fiscal year that ended this September 30, the nonprofit distributed 40.8 million pounds, a nearly 47 percent increase. The “dump rate” — the proportion of food that has to be thrown away — has dipped from 4.5 percent in the former facility to 1.8 percent today. In some cases, the physical handling of food — how much the staff has to move it around — has dropped significantly, resulting in a huge gain in efficiency. “The capability that this building has brought us is enormous,” D’Amato says.

That capability is clear upon stepping inside. Pallets of food are stacked 35 feet into the air in the humming warehouse, positioned on massive orange racks marked with bar codes and multicolored letters. Every pallet, every item, every shelf position, every expiration date — they’re all tracked with a sophisticated warehouse-management system. Food bank officials like to say that everything on the shelves — from dry storage, to the 55- and 35-degree areas, to the zero-degree freezer — has a license plate. Every piece of food is accountable.

On October 1, the Greater Boston Food Bank went a step further, unveiling software that allows food pantries and other agencies to see real-time inventory information when placing orders. Each agency logs on to the food bank’s website, selects a pickup day and a truck bay, and begins to fill a virtual cart. If the last box of fingerling potatoes was ordered by another agency 20 minutes earlier, it is no longer on the menu. Previously, the staff updated the inventory every morning, but the accuracy of that snapshot diminished as the day went on.

The new system allows the food bank to tailor online ordering to each agency. Food pantries without freezers, for example, don’t see frozen food as an option. The food bank acquires some items using state emergency food-relief funding, and only eligible agencies have access to them on the site. If a pantry selects a pickup day that’s two weeks away, anything with an expiration date before then doesn’t show up. The software also maintains the agencies’ order histories, so they can track what they’ve selected over time, and lists a nutritional value for every morsel in the warehouse.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The Hubbards wind up in a local food pantry in Canton.

When orders come in, they are transmitted wirelessly to Motorola hand-held scanners, which are connected to the warehouse-management system. Food bank workers use them to fill orders and register what they’re taking from the shelves by shooting a laser beam at the bar codes. Using pallet jacks and special forklifts that can stretch to the ceiling, they arrange orders at the truck bays and then help load them onto delivery trucks for distribution.

Elisa Shannon, vice president of acquisition at the Greater Boston Food Bank, says she loves bringing food industry executives in for a tour, because many are surprised at how advanced the operations are — how much the warehouse resembles their own. The conversations, Shannon says, often go something like this:

“All of a sudden they say, ‘Wow, you can take frozen food?’ ”

“Yeah!”

“You can take perishable food?”

“Yeah!”

“Wow, I had no idea. You can take raw food?”

“Yeah!”

This increased capability has brought other benefits, including more consistent food supplies for agencies and their clients, and tighter safety controls, which are especially useful in the event of product recalls, when the food bank might need to immediately track down every suspect jar of peanut butter. Perhaps most important, the innovations are helping the food bank meet one of its biggest challenges: the increasing demand from agencies and consumers for produce.

In the fiscal year that just ended, 10 million of the 40.8 million pounds of food the food bank distributed was produce, the highest share ever. “Twenty years ago? Couldn’t move a carrot,” D’Amato says. Acquiring, storing, and shipping apples, lettuce, and tomatoes is, of course, more complicated than handing out canned goods. Efficiency, timing, proper refrigeration, and a nimble transport system all become more critical.

Which brings us back to the Hubbard squash. This year, for the first time, the Greater Boston Food Bank began purchasing Hubbards from Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, thanks to a state initiative designed to link food agencies with local growers. At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, September 24, a big cardboard container of Hubbards came in, got its license plate, and was put into 55-degree storage. Three days later, early on Thursday the 27th, they were moved into the food bank’s marketplace, ready for the taking.

 

***

WE HOP IN Jim Ward’s mud-splattered 4x4 and head into the fields, past the sheep, past rows of radiant orange pumpkins, past a tall grass maze called “Sorghum City,” reaching a road beyond the crops. We cross it and continue down a muddy lane on the other side, stopping beside a 48-by-800-foot patch overrun with redroot pigweed, which is nearly as tall as we are.

Here, between rows of Flat White Boer pumpkins and Georgia Candy Roaster squash, is what we came to see: scores of Hubbards lying on their sides like something from Dr. Seuss’s imagination that has fallen from the sky. They may not be the prettiest cucurbit, but theirs is a warm heart.

Nehemiah McFarlane, a Jamaican farmworker known alternately as “Mackie” and “The Prophet,” pulls up in a green John Deere tractor carrying a pallet with a massive cardboard box on top. He and Ward begin to snap the Hubbards off their vines and pile them in the container. The Hubbards look heavy but aren’t. As harvesting goes, it’s not exactly backbreaking work. Several minutes later, the box is full. “It’s more difficult to pick a quart of strawberries,” Ward says.

Hubbard squash, most sources suggest, owes its name to Marblehead, where it was brought from the West Indies in the 18th or 19th century. A woman in town, Elizabeth Hubbard, introduced it to a seed enthusiast, the story goes, and thereafter it bore her name. Ward, who is 48 and runs the farm with his older brother, has been growing Hubbards for years. He sells them to Harvard University for use in its food service. The farm also chops them up before Thanksgiving and puts the pieces out for sale in the store. They sell some, too, to customers who just want them as decoration in their fall tableaux.

Ward says he sells a pallet-size box of Hubbards to the food bank for $200, or about 20 to 25 cents a pound, which he says leaves him a tiny profit. That’s a little less than Harvard pays, he says, and it’s significantly less than the 75 cents or a dollar per pound he charges at retail. For Ward, adding the food bank as a customer brings in revenue for the farm, yes, but it’s more than that. Like many farmers — and, for that matter, like many who work in hunger relief — he hates seeing food go to waste. It is, he says, gratifying to see aid organizations like this one closing gaps between food production and food consumption, between farm and table.

After picking, Ward stores all his Hubbards in a barn or near the loading docks behind the farm store. When it’s time to deliver them, his employees load them into a big box truck with a yellow school bus hood or into a smaller truck. Then they’re off, bound for their next destination.

***

CATHERINE D’AMATO HAS SPENT her life in the food business. Her grandparents were farmers. Her dad was a milk and bread man before opening a restaurant when she was 8. She began doing hunger work around 1979, back when food banks and food pantries were charities that took whatever was available. D’Amato still remembers her first food donation: industrial-sized cans of banana puree. “Originally, it would be like you’d wait for the phone to ring — ‘Hi, we have bananas!’ ” D’Amato says.

Now D’Amato calls the food bank a $60 million “charitable business” that manages and distributes food from a wide range of sources including  grocery store chains, wholesalers, manufacturers, farms, can drives, a local yogurt factory, and a national produce network. The complexity of the operation, together with the rise in need, makes efficiency a vital goal.

”It’s a big building because it’s a big problem." - food bank CEO Catherine D’Amato responding to Governor Patrick, who had commented on the 117,000-square-foot facility.

”It’s a big building because it’s a big problem." - food bank CEO Catherine D’Amato responding to Governor Patrick, who had commented on the 117,000-square-foot facility.

Just like at Amazon or Target, every needless hour of staff time, every bit of waste, every kink in the supply chain is a hindrance. For companies, they damage profitability and market share, says Charles Kane, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management. “In this case, what they’re doing is they’re able to reach more people with more food because of this efficiency gain. That’s the profit here,” says Kane, who oversaw the supply chain for the international nonprofit One Laptop per Child, which supplies low-cost computers to children in developing countries, and who has also held executive positions at various public companies.

The food bank, for example, asked a materials-handling consultant who had helped design the warehouse to return the next year and perform an audit. One of his findings was that warehouse staff, despite having a new paperless system, was still printing out copies of agencies’ orders. That simple observation and change in protocol saved eight hours of staff time a week, D’Amato says.

The food bank has made many such improvements: setting up five so-called cross-dock locations around the region so remote agencies don’t have to come into Boston; creating a “chill chain” in the new building, in which incoming cold items (think milk, eggs, frozen turkeys) don’t leave the cold — from production to refrigerated truck, into a designated cold truck bay, and then into refrigerated storage; installing solar panels that generate 10 percent of the building’s electricity; and putting in a special intake system that draws in cold outside air to cool the 55-degree storage area. Across all these innovations, every dollar saved means an additional $5.09 worth of food, which translates to 2.36 meals.

The Greater Boston Food Bank is in the vanguard nationally, but it is hardly alone. One of the most pioneering organizations is the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, which even raises its own tilapia. In recent years, the Oklahoma food bank moved to a voice ordering system, which sends orders to warehouse workers through headsets that can be programmed in 20 languages. They began using a machine to shrink-wrap pallets, which is faster and uses less plastic. And they installed digesters to turn non-compostable food waste (such as meat) into liquid, which is cheaper to dispose of.

Over the dozen years it’s been in its current facility, the Oklahoma food bank has tripled the poundage of food it distributes. And yet it has about the same number of people in the warehouse fulfilling orders as when it moved in, says Steven Moran, the vice president of operations. “We’re all operating on donated dollars, and our goal is to be the best stewards of those dollars as possible,” Moran says.

Feeding America, the national network of more than 200 food banks, including Boston’s, was the country’s third largest charity last year, according to Forbes. Breakthroughs such as those achieved by Boston, Oklahoma, and other enterprising food banks will be key to meeting two big challenges for the future, the national organization believes. The first is to distribute, within five years, 1 billion pounds of produce annually, up from 500 million pounds today, a goal aimed at both reducing waste and promoting healthy eating. The second is that cheaper food — namely government-supplied commodities — is becoming more scarce, forcing a growing reliance on more expensive sources, such as food-purchasing programs.

Underscoring all this, locally and nationally, is an uptick in need, which the financial crisis made much worse. The Greater Boston Food Bank saw a 23 percent increase in the number of people it served across Eastern Massachusetts from 2005 to 2009, to 545,000 annually. The food bank won’t have firm statistics again until a 2014 study, but the significant rise in food distribution, together with anecdotal reports from local agencies, suggests continued double-digit growth, officials say. As of 2010, 45 percent of people in Eastern Massachusetts needing food assistance made more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level of $22,050 for a family of four. That doesn’t go far in Boston. “You’re making 45 to 50 grand, and you have a family of four, but you just can’t make it anymore,” D’Amato says.

So the Greater Boston Food Bank is stuffing pupils’ backpacks with food for when school is not in session and they can’t get free or subsidized meals. The food bank is expanding a mobile food pantry initiative on community college campuses. And it has established special programs for veterans, seniors, and parents of elementary-age children. The organization’s new goal is to boost its fund-raising from $12 million to $20 million a year, knowing it will have to buy more food to keep up. One of D’Amato’s favorite quotes comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The readiness is all.”

*** 

AT 11 A.M. ON SEPTEMBER 27, Cindy Poshkus and two fellow volunteers from the Canton Food Pantry arrived at the Greater Boston Food Bank with a rented Penske truck. At Bay 6, they picked up their 4,500-pound order, a sliver of the 225,991 pounds the food bank would distribute that day.

Poshkus, the Canton Food Pantry’s co-director, hadn’t ordered the Hubbard squash beforehand. She was intrigued but reluctant when she saw them available that day in the marketplace, where various food items are laid out on a first-come, first-served basis. “I was hesitant to take them,” she says, not sure her customers would bite.

But she took the gamble, selecting four Hubbards, loading them in the truck with everything else. They were back in Canton by about noon. As she often does, Poshkus called over to Canton High School for volunteers to help with the unloading. More than 20 students came. Pantry volunteers later arranged the food on the shelves, and laid the Hubbards in the green shopping cart. The little food pantry was ready for its next big rush.

“It’s just gotten busier and busier; it’s very eye-opening for me,” Poshkus says. “I would never have thought this many people would come.” More than 375 families now rely on the Canton Food Pantry. Four to seven more sign up every week.

IN THE NUMBERS

40.8 million

Number of pounds of food the Greater Boston Food Bank distributed in the fiscal year ending September 30 

10 million

Number of pounds of produce included in that figure

2.36

Number of meals a $1 contribution pays for

117,000

Number of square feet in the food bank’s facility

 20,000

Number of volunteers who served at the food bank in the fiscal year ending September 30

550

Number of food pantries, meal programs, and shelters the food bank serves

46.6

Percent increase in the annual amount of food distribution since the food bank moved to its new facility

 Up to 1 in 4

Proportion of children in Eastern Massachusetts who are “food insecure,” meaning they do not always know where their next meal will come from (latest data are from 2009)

 Source: The Greater Boston Food Bank

Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at shelman@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @swhelman.

 

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