In 1984, nine churches came together in Covington to establish the Food Bank Inc. of St. Tammany. From a small building on Columbia Street, 30 volunteers served 40 families per week in that first year of operation.
Thirty-five years later, the name has changed to Northshore Food Bank, the building is now a 6,000 sq. ft. warehouse, and the numbers served have increased to nearly 8,000 people per year, but the mission – and the need – remain the same in St. Tammany and Washington Parishes.
“We never turn anyone away,” said Terri Turner-Marse, CEO of the Northshore Food Bank. “When individuals reside outside of our service region, we will redirect them to a closer food pantry after we have provided the initial service.”
Indeed, Feeding America’s 2018 Map the Meal Gap data found that 18.2 percent of Washington Parish is food insecure, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as having a lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life. In neighboring St. Tammany Parish, the food insecurity rate is 9.3 percent, including more than 10,770 children.
The staggering need across the two parishes has led to an increase in clients for the streamlined operations of the Northshore Food Bank. Each week, nearly 400 people visit the food bank to pick up boxes of non-perishable food items that are prepped assembly line-style by dozens of volunteers. When fresh produce, dairy products and meats are available, those items are added to “lagniappe boxes,” which may also contain “special items,” like the leftover Easter candy recently donated by a local grocery store.
“We are very cautious of the medical or dietary restrictions of our clients,” Ginger Kunkle, Volunteer Coordinator, explained, pointing to a stack of boxes containing chocolate Easter bunnies and marshmallow candies. “These are added sparingly to the lagniappe boxes, and we hand them out as available.”
To receive the food boxes, clients must first complete an application, and when approved, they receive vouchers. Once the vouchers are awarded, they need only pull up to the distribution warehouse drive-through, and volunteers review the vouchers and load the appropriate food boxes into the clients’ cars.
“Distributions are based on federal poverty guidelines and family size. They can get from 35 pounds up to 240 pounds of food per month, depending on the size of the family,” Kunkle said. “The vouchers take out the guesswork and really streamline the process.”
In recent years, however, the food bank has noted an increase in the number of families and individuals who are “on edge, financially,” Kunkle added. These people may not meet the federal poverty income guidelines, but they are still in need. In response, Northshore Food Bank created the ‘Feed the Gap’ program in 2017. Using community donations, those families can get help through the program to overcome temporary hardships, she explained.
The food bank’s Summer Stock program was also created to respond to a high need among children, Kunkle said.
“About 44 percent of St. Tammany Parish’s kids are on free/reduced meal programs available in St. Tammany Parish. Washington Parish provides meals at no cost to any students. Our Summer Stock program provides these kids with easy-open food items that they can just open and eat during the summer months,” she said.
Getting food to the families who need it is a top priority for Northshore Food Bank, but it isn’t always easy, Kunkle noted. Transportation was the number one issue reported by clients in a recent survey, she said, and many clients arrive on foot or bicycle to redeem their vouchers. For those clients, special guidelines are in place to limit the weight of the boxes to ensure easier travels, she explained.
All told, Northshore Food Bank distributes more than one million pounds of food every year to the residents of St. Tammany and Washington Parishes. Approximately 40 percent of the food distributed by the food bank comes from Second Harvest, a Feeding America Agency, with the remaining 60 percent coming from donations from local businesses and the community. More than 100 regular volunteers support the food bank by registering participants, packaging and distributing boxes to clients.
One of those volunteers, Jason Fontenelle, a Louisiana Healthcare Connections Community Health Worker, described the 12 hours per month he spends at Northshore Food Bank as “deeply rewarding.”
“They are really wonderful people who genuinely care about the communities they’re serving,” Fontenelle said. “Many of the clients drive for more than an hour to come to the Northshore Food Bank because they are treated with such dignity here. They aren’t just giving out food here; they’re giving out hope, and that’s very important to families who are struggling.”
The food bank’s commitment to fighting hunger at the community level is why Louisiana Healthcare Connections is providing Northshore Food Bank with distribution boxes, removing a significant operating expense for the organization.
“Northshore Food Bank does a wonderful job of addressing food insecurity for hundreds of families every month, and because hunger can negatively impact health, we knew we wanted to help support their efforts – not just with the boxes, but also by providing volunteer support,” said Jamie Schlottman, Louisiana Healthcare Connections CEO & Plan President. “We are pleased to have this opportunity to show our appreciation for their work in St. Tammany and Washington Parishes, where the need is so great.”
“Louisiana Healthcare Connections has made a massive impact on our operations, and we are so grateful for that,” said Jamie Andrepont, Development Director. “What we do here is so important, and we couldn’t do it without the support of our community and local partners.”
According to Kunkle, the importance of what the Northshore Food Bank does is exactly what keeps the organization’s many volunteers and donors coming back.
“Not long ago, a lady brought in her son’s wrestling team to volunteer, and once she got here, and saw what we do, she arranged to come back again with her younger son. She was just moved by the need that she saw here,” Kunkle said. “And she’s right. The need is here. And that is why we do what we do.”
To learn more about the Northshore Food Bank, or to find out how to donate or volunteer, visit www.northshorefoodbank.org, call (985) 892-5282, or email email@example.com.
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