By Christina Tobias-Nahi
Just a couple hours north of Islamic Relief USA headquarters is soon to be the largest food bank in the nation. As IRUSA has been sponsoring a project there, a few staff set off to see for themselves how this small state is tackling a hunger problem effecting 114,000 residents, primarily children and the elderly.
Run by Patricia Beebe, a self-avowed throwback from the 60s who has been at the helm for two decades, the first thing you notice when arriving is all the bright, cheery tie-dye colors – on the staff T-shirts, buildings, and the cars parked in the lot. There is also a similarly bright mobile terrarium filled with various sorts of plants that travels to schools to teach nutrition.
Once inside, there is a giant warehouse filled with racks of food and a “shopping” area where registered users can come and select items to bring home, even hard to come by items like baby formula. There is a special day for USDA qualifying senior citizens to come and where they will also receive fresh items. This is held at the end of each month, as usually by then their social security check has been used up on rent, medicine, and a little food, and they may go hungry until receiving the next one.
IRUSA staff next visited the volunteer room where a robust program is set up that welcomes those wanting to work on packing activities. Today it was the school backpack food that IRUSA is supporting and we quickly joined the ranks of those already there bagging up items such as canned pasta, milk and juice boxes, applesauce and oatmeal packets that food insecure children will receive to take home over the weekend. The parcels were packed up to be received at local schools with over 5,000 children participating weekly. The program was soon to end as the school year draws to a close, which will mean families will go hungry and will have to find summer feeding sites in their community until next fall.
Volunteers there were mixed gender and age. One young man who looked to barely be out of high school himself said he was there because he had to serve community service hours though corrections but he was almost done doing his time and had enjoyed the experience so much and giving back – that he planned to continue to be a regular volunteer.
After our staff finished bagging up the backpack items we proceeded to another building to a conference room where we were treated to a lunch made by students in the 14 week culinary program. This is a program mostly made up of ex-offenders to give them restaurant skills and then assist with job placement. We joked to the supervising head chef that we hoped they weren’t in the early weeks of their program, but they were actually nearing the end and a lovely meal it was!
The Delaware Food Bank with all its diverse programming has actually outgrown its existing space and the dream has been to house everything under one roof and have better loading docks for trucks delivering excess food and parking for beneficiaries. They have recently purchased a site just miles away and we went for a visit to see what will become the largest in the country once the work has been done to repurpose it. Located on a sprawling lake in a business park, we looked at blue print designs and walked through the shell of a space where floor markings showed where walls would go up and spaces created in what will be a green building design. They are also hoping a community partner will come in and create some walking paths around the lake so local schools can come do field trips.
The culinary school will expand and will have an actual café serving the workers in the nearby buildings to give graduating students a chance to practice not just back kitchen but also customer service skills before they head off into the workforce. There will also be a farm adjacent to the premises where agriculture students can come from the University and do internships, and some of what is grown will be used in the café. The warehouse will be even larger and have special cooling rooms so more fresh products can be stored and be made available to those coming to access the shop to feed themselves or their families.
And of course there will be a bigger and better volunteer room. Whether it be packing items to supplement the meager meals of seniors or children, the community, and even those from as far as Virginia and beyond, are welcome to come and tackle hunger in our midst, one backpack at a time.