Thanks to the very generous support of numerous public and private partners and the community, the Howard County Food Bank has moved to a larger facility. The staff, volunteers, and clients are delighted to say goodbye to cramped conditions and hello to spacious grocery shopping.
Pictured from left: Lonnie Robbins-Howard County Chief Administrative Officer, Delegate Dr. Clarence Lam-Maryland State House of Representatives, Dr. Calvin Ball-Howard County Council, Jen Terrasa-Howard County Council, Senator Guy Guzzone-Maryland State Senate, Bita Dayhoff-President of CAC, Allan Kittleman-Howard County Executive, Boyd K. Rutherford-Lt. Governor of Maryland, Leonardo McClarty-President of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, Delegate Terri L. Hill-Maryland State House of Delegates, Jon Weinstein-Howard County Council Chairperson, Delegate Frank Turner-Maryland House of Representatives.
For years, the staff and volunteers at the Howard County Food Bank did their best to try to make shopping there enjoyable. They provided friendly, helpful service. They kept food and household items stacked neatly on well-marked shelves. They cultivated several plots at the Long Reach Garden site to supplement the fruits and vegetables that individuals and organizations donated so there would a large selection of produce to choose from and take home.
But the food bank lacked one essential ingredient to give clients a truly satisfying shopping experience – adequate space. As the food bank usage swelled to 27,000 clients in 2016 (an astounding 310 percent increase during the last eight years), the space issue worsened to the point some clients and volunteers said they felt “claustrophobic” in the marketplace.
But late last year, the Community Action Council of Howard County (CAC), the non-profit organization that oversees the food bank, was able to amass enough funds and other support from a variety of sources to buy and renovate a larger facility at 9385-J Gerwig Lane in Columbia. The food bank moved to its new location on November 28, 2016.
The new facility occupies 8,000 square feet, compared to the 3,000 square feet at the former rented location at 8920 Route 108 in Columbia. The purchase price and renovation exceeded $1.1 million.
“We would not have been able to do it without a public, private partnership that encompassed community support,” stated CAC President Bita Dayhoff, who noted that it took four years to make CAC’s dream of buying a large food bank become reality.
That “public, private partnership” included the State of Maryland, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Howard County Housing Commission, Howard County Government, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Community Foundation of Howard County, Columbia Association, Giant Food, Costello Construction Inc., Earl and Mary Armiger/Orchard Development and Armiger Management, Talkin & Oh, LLC and George Vaeth Associates.
Several state and local officials, including Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford, attended the grand opening held in the shopping area of the new food bank on January 10, 2017. At the event, Ms. Dayhoff commended numerous “guardian angels” for being concerned about the welfare of others. State Sen. Guy Guzzone, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, and the late Tom Carbo (former director of the Howard County Department of Housing and Community Development and former executive director of the Howard County Housing Commission) were among those Ms. Dayhoff showered with praise.
“Your perseverance, your ability to embrace a vision, your trust in CAC, and your belief that no individual should be food insecure in a wealthy county like Howard made this possible,” she extolled at the event.
Sen. Guzzone was among those who spoke. “I want to soak up this moment,” he said. After a long pause, he continued, “I’m listening to the freezers hum and the refrigerators hum. They make me smile…This is truly what I believe we are all about as humans. We have the ability to reach out and do good for others.”
CAC Board Chairperson Dr. Clarence Lam called the acquisition of the new food bank a “remarkable achievement.” He quoted Mahatma Gandhi as saying, “A civilization’s greatness is measured by how we treat our weakest members.”
With a snip of a blue ribbon held by elected officials and others who contributed to this climatic moment, the new food bank was ceremonially opened.
Clients had already been shopping there for weeks, and they couldn’t help but observe the dramatic improvement as they filled their carts with cans, meat, milk, and fresh produce.
“Clients love it,” declared Director of Food Services Phillip Dodge. “It’s so big. It’s so beautiful. It’s so bright. It’s so welcoming.”
Client Mary Duley said, “It’s more comfortable (than the previous food bank). We’re not squished in the aisles anymore.”
Another client, Rebecca Gmahl, called the previous food bank “very crammed,” causing her to feel rushed and stressed. She felt she had to keep moving or other shoppers would be stuck behind her because there was no room to maneuver around her, and it was obvious she was tying up a shopping cart that others were waiting for. Ms. Gmahl’s desire to take her time shopping wasn’t frivolous – she needed to read labels to be sure that ingredients adhered to her daughter’s dietary restrictions.
A dramatically reduced wait time is another benefit that made clients feel like shouting “hallelujah.” That happened because the enlarged facility allows at least 10 clients to shop simultaneously, twice as many as at the old location.
The wealth of space also increases the warehouse capacity not only for the food bank, but also for the 13 food pantries scattered throughout the county that the food bank supplies.
And, the extra food bank space provides features not available at the prior location: a comfortable waiting room separate from the marketplace, publicly accessible rest rooms, a break room for staff and volunteers, and a conference/class room.
The number of checkout stations for clients and loading docks for donors have each increased from one to two.
There are also intangibles that come with having the new food bank.
“The sense I get is that this provides a very dignified shopping experience for each one of our clients,” said Food Bank Community Worker Kevin Berry. “Dignity is of the utmost importance in serving those living in poverty because there can be a stigma that comes with living in poverty. You want to do everything you can to reduce that stigma.”
Because CAC bought the facility “it provides a sense of sustainability and stability for those who are in need,” noted Ms. Dayhoff. “There’s never a question in times of trouble that there’s an organization that’s permanently there to lend a helping hand.”
The new food bank also provides CAC staff needed office space. It has two offices and five cubicles for food bank staff and other CAC staff members. A member of CAC’s Rapid Response team who can help clients access the organization’s other services (housing, energy, and weatherization assistance as well as Head Start) will soon be located at the food bank. Volunteer Coordinator Sarah Schindehette is already stationed in the new facility where most CAC volunteers work. This enables Ms. Schindehette to have more interaction with food bank volunteers and the opportunity to ask donors dropping off food if they are interested in becoming volunteers.
The food bank serves Howard County residents who have incomes that are at or below 150% of the federal poverty level. Last year, the food bank distributed 687,000 pounds of food. Though Howard is one of the most affluent counties in the country, 7.1 percent of county residents experience food insecurity, and an increasing percentage of those residents have children.
The food bank relies heavily on money and donations from individuals and organizations. With this larger facility, the food bank is in a position to serve more residents, but that will require increased donations, according to Mr. Dodge.
The food bank is also in need of additional volunteers to perform a wide variety of tasks. Join us!