Food Banks: Thinking Outside of the Box

by Jodi Gatts, Administrator of Healthy Habits Training Center at Greater Washington County Food Bank

grocery bagFundamental Needs

Food banking as we know it today started with a Phoenix man, John Van Henge, in the 1960’s. He saw a need, developed a plan to rescue food from area grocery stores, and started an organization that is unfortunately still needed today.

One might find themselves in a line for food because of many different reasons – loss of a job, fire, illness, loss of a loved one. A lot of people are only one paycheck away from needing the support of their local food bank. And it is a big undertaking trying to provide a supplemental food box that is shelf stable, nutritious and delicious for the hungry people in our neighborhood.

Regional food banks can offer unique services to support the needs of their communities. Members of the leadership team and staff often think out of the box to try to offer resources, education, skills labs, and opportunities to meet local needs. These services supplement the food boxes and take the willingness of professionals to share their expertise.

Food Bank_Greater Washington CtyGreater Washington County Food Bank (GWCFB), located  in southwestern Pennsylvania, is able to get food to deserving families all over Washington County thanks to federal and state programs. We also have the capability of stretching our dollars farther than the average consumer. For every dollar we receive in monetary donations, we can stretch that dollar to five. That gives us 5 times the buying power! GWCFB delivered more than 2 million pounds of food in 2016-17 fiscal year. More than 33,000 families visited our food pantry locations. Also, thanks to partnerships with Walmart and Sam’s Club, we are also sending fresh produce, meats and bakery to our clients.

Low-income seniors can benefit from the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), a federal program administered by the USDA. Qualifying clients over the age of 60 can receive a supplemental box. Produce to People is a once a month distribution of fresh produce that works alongside of the food bank. Each family receives on average 35-45 pounds of extra food and they can go to more than one location per month unlike the food pantries where they can only receive food from one pantry a month.


GWCFB recently moved to a new location in Washington County which was 10 miles from our previous location at a retail store with an attached warehouse. GWCFB purchased this building and began construction on their vision of “more than food.” Through grants from Walmart and UPMC, a training center was built consisting of two residential training kitchens and a classroom area with desks, chairs, a smart TV and 10 laptops. Classes are being offered on subjects such as finance, computers, extreme couponing, how to use essential oils, gardening classes, cooking and nutritional classes. These classes are free to attend for our food pantry clients and a nominal donation is asked of non-pantry clients. In the retail section of this building we opened a thrift store. Country Thrift Market is where our pantry clients and the community can purchase clothes, furniture, household items, jewelry, some snack items, and new health and beauty items for a fraction of the cost. All the proceeds from the Country Thrift Market support the Food Bank so we can continue to deliver food to our 49 pantries sites.

tomatoesOur new building sits on 22 acres of old farmland. We are working with the local university to get interns that can help us create a working farm. We have started with a few raised beds and 70 fruit trees that were donated by The Fruit Tree Foundation of Pittsburgh, PA. We envision traditional row crops of tomatoes, peppers, corn, pumpkins and squash. Having fresh produce grown on-site will enable us to save money in gasoline, will cut down on exhaust emissions and will be providing healthy produce to our pantry clients. It will also give the pantry clients an opportunity to give something back by volunteering in the gardens. The knowledge they will gain by helping on the farm can be used at their homes and communities to start gardens for their families and neighbors. Expanding green space in cities and suburban spaces has proven to be spiritually uplifting, and good for the body and soul. We also have plans for the “future” farm. Shipping containers can be turned into hydroponic gardens that will yield as much produce in a 20’ x 40’ space as farming two acres. We are also working with a local school district that has one of these onsite, to engineer 2 to 4 shipping containers to put in production on our back lot. 1500 heads of lettuce can be harvested each week out of one container. Local restaurants have already shown interest in buying from us which will help them promote “fresh, local foods.”

We feel we are providing a well-rounded experience to those willing to come learn and participate in our programs. Starting at ground level, participants are working the soil, planting, growing, bringing the harvest in to cook and preserve, and then taking the biodegradables back outside to feed the soil. GWCFB has adopted a saying, “It takes more than food.” We believe it also takes knowledge. Our vision for the future includes workshops, classes and teaching opportunities, as well as to continue to provide healthy and delicious supplemental foods to the residents of Washington County.


It is critical to make appropriate patient referrals to food banks but there may be programs the patient or family members would benefit from as well.

So what is happening at your local food bank? How can you get involve individually or as an organization? Do you have a skill or hobby you would like to share with your neighbors? You can make a difference!

HHQI Resource:  Heart-Healthy Boxes for Food Banks

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