The Business of Food Banking

Photos By Lanewood Studios

It’s a Monday afternoon at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank (CAFB) distribution center, and forklifts are in motion filling orders for partner agencies. In the back of the 40,000-square foot warehouse, visitors stroll past shelves stocked with dry goods on their way to picking up emergency food boxes. Outside, a nutrition student is demonstrating how to prep a citrus salad using the oranges up for grabs.
For those used to stacks of canned goods, the supply of oranges may come as a surprise. That’s because the availability of fresh foods at a food bank is a relatively new concept.

A Shift in Sourcing and Spending

The original food bank model, introduced in the 1960s, made quantity of distributed goods a priority over quality. Canned foods and nonperishable items made up the bulk of food bank inventories simply because they were easy to acquire, store, and distribute in mass to families in need.

Moving into the 21st century, however, a growing body of research is revealing a direct link between lack of access to nutritious food and continued poverty. Their resounding message, which holds profound implications for the way food banks operate, is simple: cheap, processed foods tend to be higher in calories, sugar, and fat. When consumed in excess, they may increase risk of weight gain and chronic disease, which in turn increases health care costs and the likelihood of remaining in poverty.

In response, Feeding America, the umbrella organization for a network of 200 food banks nationwide, introduced “Foods to Encourage” in 2012. A method for evaluating the nutritional content of food in a food bank’s inventory, it encourages partnering food banks to focus on foods that contribute positively to good health. The CAFB made access to fruit and vegetables a priority for its clients in 2013. Today, 68% of its distributed goods fall under Feeding America’s qualifications for “Foods to Encourage,” and in 2016, 4 million pounds of the 15.9 million pounds of food distributed was fresh fruits and vegetables. In January 2015, the CAFB
became the second organization of its kind to also
source milk, and it now teaches this business model to other food banks across the country.

Because produce, milk, eggs, and meat need to be kept cool for food safety, the CAFB has invested more than $500,000 in new coolers and refrigerated trucks since 2015. To expand access to healthy food in areas that do not have brick-and-mortar food pantries, the CAFB has also expanded its Mobile Pantry program. Fuel, drivers, and administration of these distributions are often funded internally or partially covered with grants or sponsorships. President and CEO Gina Crumbliss anticipates the organization will distribute 1.8 million pounds of perishable food via Mobile Food Pantry in 2017.

Did you know?
According to Map the Meal Gap, an annual study by Feeding America, residents in the CAFB’s 20-county service area missed a total of 9.8 million meals in 2015 – the same year the food bank distributed 11 million pounds of food. In 2016, the CAFB set a goal to distribute 14 million pounds of food and surpassed that goal, delivering 15.9 million pounds instead. That’s the equivalent of over 13 million meals.


While those who struggle with food insecurity often cut out perishable items, most food banks find it no more difficult or expensive to obtain produce than canned goods. Through relationships with suppliers and a willingness to accept so-called “ugly” foods, food banks nationwide are
developing ways to salvage produce that would otherwise be discarded
and distribute it to the communities they serve.     

According to the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, 25 to 40% of American grown produce goes to waste for failing to meet retail cosmetic standards (think: squash that grew crooked, darker-hued cauliflower, cabbages that weigh 10 pounds, etc.). The first line of imperfect produce is typically sold to restaurants, while the leftovers can either sit in a field to rot or be donated to area food banks. 

Today, it takes a partnership between food banks and farmers to come up with supply chain logistics that maximize money and time. In 2015, Jaynee Day, President and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, noticed that when green bean farmer Chris Hughes harvested his crops, beans that failed to meet retail standards were culled to the side and thrown away. Hughes wanted to donate the food, but he’d need a $50,000 piece of machinery to make it happen. So Feeding America, Second Harvest, and several “sister agencies” including the CAFB financed the necessary equipment, and today Hughes’s donations amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds of fresh green beans each year.

“His first season’s contribution was about three 18-wheeler tractor trailer loads of green beans,” Crumbliss remembers with a laugh. “It’s all about helping people think outside of the box.”

Farmers, harvesters, and packing sheds that donate produce typically offset their costs with a fee of about 11 cents per pound. After sourcing and distribution, it is estimated the CAFB spends an average of 33 cents per pound on its produce. A small percentage of the cost is recouped from partner agencies with a 2 cent to 5 cent surcharge, depending on the product.

Defining “Food Insecure”

There is no formula to determine how “in need” a person should be to receive food from the CAFB. Food insecurity is defined as a lack of access to adequate amounts of food or nutritious food – so if you say you’re hungry, that’s good enough.

“It could be that you’re housebound, you lack transportation, you’ve lost payable hours caring for a loved one, or your budget can’t sustain both medication and groceries,” says Gina Crumbliss, CAFB president and CEO. “These are hardships that can fall on anyone.” 

Over 80% of those served by the CAFB have some college education. Additionally, most families have at least one member who has worked for a paycheck in the last year.

Focusing on Efficiency & Food Safety

Sourcing, transporting, storing, and distributing perishable food items has food banks operating more like businesses than ever before. It’s a dance of harvest times, cooler temperatures, “Best By” dates, food handling safety, calls from area grocery stores with leftover produce, potential distribution dates, and potential delivery dates. A few of the many steps toward efficiency and safety at the CAFB have included:

Online Orders: In the past, partner agencies shopped at the CAFB like it was a Costco Wholesale store. If you ran a church-based food pantry, you would push a basket down the aisles and take what you needed for the clients in your county. Distributing perishable goods this way, however, runs the risk of not moving them fast enough for optimum freshness. Today, the facility’s offerings are catalogued in a real-time online inventory system akin to Partner agencies can place orders electronically and either ask for a delivery or offer to come pick it up.

Connecting Agencies with Donors: If Publix Supermarket in Ooltewah has bakery goods that have reached their “Best By” date, store managers can contact CAFB partner agencies in Ooltewah and schedule a pick-up from volunteers. There’s no need to transport donated foods to the downtown distribution center if church-sponsored food pantries can communicate with retail donor representatives themselves.

Partner Agency Training: Volunteers at partner agencies are trained in safety protocol for the transport and storage of perishable foods. CAFB Program Coordinator Holly Martin offers guidance on which items can and cannot be stored together for maximum freshness, and ensures partner agencies know how to handle and store each item.

Just-In-Time Deliveries: Many food banks source as many perishable food items as possible and push them out to partner agencies in hopes that enough will be claimed before they spoil. The CAFB, however, begins by asking partner agencies if they even want produce at all. They then coordinate deliveries with agency hours so perishable items can be distributed to food insecure individuals on the same day. “The idea is to source just enough food to meet demand,” Crumbliss says.



CAFB receives produce requests from agency partners.
CAFB staff works with agency partners to determine produce needs and potential delivery dates.

CAFB matches produce requests with available supply.
CAFB staff matches member agency requests and distribution dates with potential supplier donations and delivery dates.

Suppliers deliver to the food bank’s warehouse.
Farmers and growers deliver produce to the CAFB’s 40,000-square foot warehouse.

CAFB trucks transport food to member agencies.
CAFB truck drivers deliver fresh produce to member agencies, often on the same day it’s delivered to the warehouse.

Member agencies distribute produce to their communities.
CAFB truck drivers unload fresh produce just in time for member agencies to distribute it to their communities.


Food as Medicine: The Future of Food Banking

Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Second Harvest Heartland (SHH) is one of the nation’s most innovative organizations in hunger relief and a “mentor” food bank to the CAFB. Currently, the CAFB is studying the organization’s pilot project, FoodRX, which matches patients with appropriate foods for their well-being.

If someone goes to a health care provider and discovers they have diabetes, FoodRX prompts their provider to ask, “do you have enough food?” If the person says no, FoodRX then prompts the provider to ask, “Do we have permission to share your information with the local food bank?’” In turn, the partnering Feeding America food bank gives the patient a box of diabetic-friendly food.

“This industry is moving way beyond a can of beans or corn on a shelf,” says Crumbliss. “We’re looking to solve food-related health conditions before they escalate to chronic illnesses. If access to healthy food is a critical weapon in the battle against chronic disease and poverty, partnering with the medical community is our next step.”

CAFB is also looking at ways food could lower incidence of hospital re-admissions, particularly among the elderly. Studies show malnourished patients have longer hospitalizations and are more likely to be readmitted within 15 days. However, if a caseworker visits a recently discharged patient with a box of appropriately nutritious food, the likelihood of that patient returning to the hospital may diminish.

“This is a model where everyone wins,” says Crumbliss. “The patient is healthier and happier, and the hospital improves its rates, which in turn saves them costs. It’s far cheaper for a hospital to underwrite a food program than be penalized by the federal government for high readmission rates.”

How You Can Help

Recent audits by Feeding America, the United States Department of Agriculture, the American Institute of Baking (AIB), and CPA firm Mauldin & Jenkins concluded that 97 cents of every dollar the CAFB raises goes directly to food and programs. For the first time in history, the CAFB’s warehouse and fleet of nine trucks are operating at capacity. Food donations make up a major part of the food bank’s ability to reach locals in need, but the truth is cash donations go much further. You could buy a $1 can and drop it at a food drive, or you can donate $1 and the CAFB will leverage its buying power to turn that dollar into four full meals.

One of three food banks in the U.S. challenged by Feeding America to double its impact by 2025, the CAFB hopes to fund one more truck, and two additional drivers, within the next 18 months. For more information about how you can get involved, visit



Photos by Rich Smith

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