By Maria Saporta
Georgia already has the strongest food bank network in the country. Now the seven food banks that make up Feeding Georgia are investing almost $80 million to make their network even stronger.
Feeding Georgia is the new name of what used to be the Georgia Food Bank Association. The new branding more closely aligns with the national organization Feeding America, which sets the territories of the various food banks in the country. Today, the organization is helping its seven-member network of food banks raise the funds needed to match $46.6 million of CARES Act funding that is being allocated through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
“With the “Better Together” campaign, we will have a state-of-the-art, leading-edge physical infrastructure among our food banks that will have the capacity to serve every county in the state,” said Danah Craft, executive director of Feeding Georgia. “The projects being built with the CARES Act funding will enable the Feeding Georgia food banks to increase their distribution of food by 30 percent over the next 10 years — an additional 45 million meals.”
The campaign received a major boost last April when the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation provided a $5 million grant to Feeding Georgia to help the food bank network match the federal dollars. Craft is trying to raise an additional $2 million by June 2023 to secure the federal funds. Individual food banks are raising the remaining philanthropic dollars.
To date, Feeding Georgia and its member food banks have raised more than $19 million toward the total $32.3 million fundraising goal. The projects have to be completed by December 2023. Philanthropic dollars will need to be raised by next June so that all the projects can be under construction by October 2023.
“We have the premier food bank in the country,” said Russ Hardin, president and CEO of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation. “Georgia has the most rational and efficient network of food banks in the country. We’ve got it really well coordinated.”
Back in 1985, Bill Bolling, the founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, convened all the food banks in the state to share information and emerging trends at quarterly meetings. That was the origin of the Georgia Food Bank Association. The organization was incorporated in 1998, but it took until 2010 to hire its first executive director, Craft, who Bolling described as one of the best hires he had ever made.
“Things really came together when we hired Danah as our first executive director,” Bolling said. “Danah was the perfect choice. She brought the experience of working in the private sector as well as the foundation community. She has grown in the job as demands of the job grew. She continues to offer an inclusive vision, strong leadership, a keen mind for problem solving, the ability to work across differences and a determination to get more done by working together.”
In her mind, Craft said she works for the seven members of the Feeding Georgia network rather than the other way around. The executive directors of the food banks serve on her board, and they work together for the greater good.
For example, the Atlanta Community Food Bank, under the leadership of CEO Kyle Waide, had just completed a major capital campaign right before the pandemic. Eleven days before the pandemic closed down the economy, the Atlanta food bank moved into its new headquarters, which also houses Feeding Georgia.
When the Georgia Department of Community Affairs asked Craft if her members had capital projects that would qualify for the CARES Act, she responded that six of her seven members had projects in the works — including new warehouses, facilities as well as coolers and freezers necessary to distribute fresh foods and perishable items.
“Atlanta didn’t qualify for the funding,” Craft said. “But Kyle Waide went with me to the Woodruff Foundation and to other funders to voice support for the other food banks. They do things together even if they don’t benefit equally. They do it for each other and for the greater good of strengthening the network statewide.”
Both Bolling and Hardin credited Craft for fostering a cordial relationship among the food banks.
“Danah was instrumental in growing the network of food banks,” Bolling said. “Each community has its own unique needs, so it was essential to have someone who was a good convener, listener, translator and peacemaker. We also needed someone adept at working on policy issues. It was essential that we built trusting relationships with the Agriculture Commissioner, farmers, schools, public agencies, the faith community and with each other.”
“Danah runs the network,” he said. “She’s got the right instincts in terms of collaboration, and she’s savvy about fundraising. She also is well-respected at the state legislature.”
The Feeding Georgia network also is critical during extreme weather or societal events.
“I coordinate disaster response among the Georgia food banks so they can share resources,” Craft said.
COVID provided special challenges for the network, not the least of which was having to stop its volunteer operations so as not to spread the virus.
“During the last pandemic when restaurants and hotels shut down, the food that was stranded in the supply chain was fresh — perishable fruits and vegetables that were supposed to be sold to the restaurant and hotel industry, and milk that was supposed to be delivered to schools for school lunches,” Craft said. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture purchased that food as a way to support the growers and sent it to the food bank network to help with the pandemic response.”
Fortuitously, the Feeding Georgia network already had expanded its freezer and cooler capacity in 2015 and 2016 to capture more donated produce from Georgia farmers.
“When the farm-to-food bank program started in 2015, Georgia farmers were donating 3 million pounds a year,” Craft said. “Last year, they donated $20 million pounds of ‘ugly produce.’ It’s perfectly good, but it’s aesthetically imperfect by size or blemishes so they donate it to us.”
Interestingly enough, most of the Georgia produce comes from the southern part of the state — the only territory that is not part of the Feeding Georgia network that includes 133 of the state’s 159 counties. Craft said the Feeding Georgia networks coordinates its efforts with Second Harvest of South Georgia, though, which received $18 million in CARES Act funding on top of the $46.6 million Feeding Georgia received.
Craft believes Feeding Georgia has the strongest food bank network in the country.
“All the members of the network are strong with strong leadership,” she said. “They share best practices. They share ideas. They share fundraising technology. I admire these food banks so much.”
Feeding Georgia’s food banks served nearly 1.3 million Georgians in its last fiscal year. But the current demand for food assistance is 30 percent above pre-pandemic levels, and the demand is only getting greater with increased food and fuel cost.
“The need for food banks and an association has never been greater and more critical,” Bolling said. “With increased needs and a very dynamic public policy environment, it’s important to support each other and come together to create strategic partnerships.”