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Features - Posted October 23, 2009 10:36 a.m.
photos by Jeff Harbin, Life of Riley Photography

Lend a Hand to High Plains

The salvage room shelves at the High Plains Food Bank are looking bare. Going into their busiest season, the need is great while donations have been small. Janie Singleton is, in a word, panicking.

“We are in dire need of donations right now because the demand has gone up so much this year. This is the last of the salvage,” says the executive director, pointing to a handful of bins filled with donated package food, cleaning products and toiletries. “We’ve been on the phone trying to come up with more, because normally we have boxes clear up to the top. We’re starting to feel a sense of panic.”

When she joined the organization in 1991, after being a stay-at-home mom and then director of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program for three years, the HPFB distributed 1.8 millions pounds of food on a $280,000 budget. This year, after 18 years as the executive director, the food bank will distribute 4.6 million pounds of food on a $1.6 million budget. Yet, the need for donations is stronger than ever.

“It’s been one of those years. We’ve seen an explosion of families who are in real need, and many of them have never had to ask for help before, but now they are going to our agencies for food,” says Janie.

The HPFB provides food for 165 agencies in 28 counties, serving areas from the northernmost point of the Panhandle, as far south as Plainview, and as far east as Quanah. The agencies then distribute the food in three ways: a pantry-style program, where people pick up food to take home and prepare it, an on-site feeding program, like Faith City Mission where people come to eat a meal, and home-delivered programs, such as Meals on Wheels. Just this year, the HPFB built a community garden as a means to supplement their distribution and educate people on organic gardening. As the need arises in each community, the demands on the food bank grow.

For example, this time last year the pantry programs served an average of 8,200 families a month. Now, the food bank averages more than 11,000 families per month, and Janie expects that need to increase as the holidays approach.

“More than 415,000 pounds of food leaves this building every month for the three programs,” she says. “And that’s only going to grow.”

The term “salvage” refers to food that comes directly off the shelves and is either nearing its expiration date or is in damaged packaging. Every single item is examined by hand to determine if it’s fit for distribution, which is usually around 75 percent of what is donated. If it doesn’t meet their strict guidelines, it’s tossed.

Once the product is examined, teams of volunteers come in on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings to sort and organize. Inventory is taken and a food list is given to agencies on a weekly basis. They place their orders and on a first come, first serve basis, the food bank distributes each order, to agencies as close as downtown Amarillo to communities 120 miles away. With a grant from the Harrington Foundation, the HPFB recently purchased their first refrigerated 48-foot tractor trailer in an effort to deliver more efficiently to the rural areas.

“One of our goals is to be sure each agency has delivery at least twice a month, and we’re not there yet, but we sure are working on it,” says Janie. “We’re also trying to raise money for a rooftop water catchment system and a Kids’ Café kitchen on a lot in our garden. Hopefully when the economy gets better, we can do that.”

The Kids’ Café is a ten-year-old program that operates in four local elementary schools – Robert E. Lee, Humphrey Highland, San Jacinto, and Hamlet – as well as the Maverick Club, and at a church each in Pampa and Wellington. The HPFB serves dinner five nights a week (two nights in Pampa) to at-risk children. Currently, there are 650 meals served each night in Amarillo, and like everything else, Janie suspects that number will rise.

“We’ve been in schools long enough that we have principals telling us what a big improvement it’s made in terms of behavioral problems and learning skills,” she says. “You know, a hungry mind can’t learn. We are working very hard to break the cycle of poverty with these kids.”

Before this year, the HPFB prepared each meal in a tiny kitchen on site, but now they oversee preparation with the Bivins Culinary Center. When enough money is raised, Janie looks forward to having a large kitchen next to the community garden, where their fresh organic produce can be prepared daily and served to the children.

“Mary Emeny and I ran into each other at the symphony in January, and I just happened to mention that we purchased the land behind the food bank and wanted to put in a Kids’ Café. I just said it’d be fun to have a community garden and the next thing I knew we had one,” laughs Janie. “The High Plains Institute of Applied Ecology is the group that really got behind it and got a grant to get it going.”

Irwin Greenhouse donated the plants and 400 volunteers with the United Way spent a Day of Caring in August starting lasagna beds. Former summer interns, Marc Lansing and Morgan Dezendorf, were recently hired to manage the on-going projects and volunteer education program. While the garden has been an enormous success, it, too, is in dire need of manual help.

“We want to do so much – to teach kids how to compost and garden, to be an example of how to do it organically. We eventually want to open it to the neighborhood here so people can grow their own produce to keep or sell at the farmers market,” says Janie. “This is just the beginning of what’s really going to happen.”

Spend a few minutes in conversation with Janie and it quickly becomes apparent where her commitment lies. She’s seen how excited the children get at the Kids’ Cafes when they get to have second helpings. She’s known the single working-mothers who need just a little bit of help when their food stamps don’t stretch the entire month. She’s known of senior citizens who have to choose between their medicine and food, because living on a fixed income doesn’t pay for both.

“Then you find out there’s an elderly women eating cat food because she can get five cans for a dollar. If that doesn’t touch your heart, I don’t know what can,” she says.

“If everyone in Amarillo donated one dollar, we’d be in great shape. We have a goal of alleviating hunger and there isn’t a dollar that isn’t used,” she continues. “We are a transparent organization and have the responsibility of spending each donation properly.”

For more information, visit High Plains Food Bank.

by Jennie Treadway-Miller

Jennie was a columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press for eight years prior to moving to Amarillo in 2008. She is an avid reader, runner and writer.
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