1975: America was recovering from scandal and mired in malaise. All around there was a feeling we could do better. In Atlanta, a young man named Bill Bolling opened a community kitchen to help feed the city’s growing homeless population. Four decades later he’s still feeding hungry Georgians with an eye on new projects and his planned departure next year from the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
Imagine that, no Bill Bolling at the ACFB. That’s almost like no chicken in chicken soup.
“We actually have empty shelves,” Bolling said as we walked through the Food Bank’s massive warehouse on Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard northwest of downtown Atlanta. “We ought to be bulging in November. We used to raise so much food that it would last until February or March. Nowadays it’s going out faster.”
When the Atlanta Regional Commission decided to start a new monthly Perspectives Speakers series the first invitation went to Bolling because, as moderator Craig Lesser noted, the series should discuss “issues we need to be thinking about if we are going to be a better community later today, next week, five years, ten years and fifteen years from now.”
Lesser told the diverse audience of community leaders, executives and educators that successful communities are “not just about successful people. It’s about how do we address issues that are equally if not more important about a large segment of our population.” In Georgia, one-in-four children and one in every five people do not always have enough to eat.
When Bolling leaves his position as ACFB executive director next year he will launch an urban agriculture project that already has established lofty goals: hundreds of new community gardens, urban farms, farm-to-table and farm-to school initiatives. “This is the hottest thing going on,” Bolling said. “Young people three generations off the farm think it’s neat. They forget how hard the work is!”
Bolling founded what would become the Atlanta Community Food Bank in 1979 in the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church basement. This year the ACFB will distribute almost 60 million pounds of food, enough to prepare 37 million meals, changing lives one plate at a time for 750,000 who need food assistance in metro Atlanta and 29 north Georgia counties. The Food Bank has 650 community partner organizations. It picks up food from 400 grocery stores. It works with manufacturers. It will receive can-by-can donations from 700 holiday food drives before the end of the year. It prepares and distributes hot food.
Feeding America’s “Hunger in America 2014” report says nationally four-in-ten client households have children under age 18 and one-in-three has someone 60 years or older. Eight-in-ten of the ACFB client households live at or below the poverty line which is $23,850 for a family of four. Six-in-ten who use food assistance held jobs within the past year and six-in-ten have more than a high school degree.
“If there were easy answers to these systemic issues we’re smart enough we would have figured them out,” Bolling said. “You start talking about wages, income mobility, income equality, that’s a hard conversation to have. Eventually we’ve got to have it. The narrative now is poor people blame the rich, the rich blame the poor and we all blame government. One of the things about the Food Bank is, we are the table for that discussion.”
The ACFB provides free supplies to teachers in 13 school systems. “Teachers know kids,” said Bolling. “They know which one’s hungry.” As a designated first responder it keeps on hand truckloads of water and emergency supplies. With Emory University it developed a “Hunger 101” course that is taught at food banks nationwide.
The ACFB has a full-time employee who works with Georgia farms to identify and harvest surplus produce before it rots. Each year the food bank distributes 12 million pounds of produce. “For kids you’ve got to make it cool to eat good food,” Bolling said during our warehouse tour. The food bank created its own nutrition and wellness center and it operates 15 mobile pantries weekly.
To suggest that the ACFB merely distributes food to community partners who get it into the hands of people in need would be way off-target. Today’s Food Bank is equal parts passion, relationships, logistics, transportation, collaboration, humanity, accountability and bringing people to the table who otherwise might not be there. Some of the biggest names in corporate Georgia provide people and expertise at no cost because they understand that the Food Bank builds communities, one plate at a time.
When he does leave next year there will not be any ceremonial office kept warm. The new management team that Bolling began to build almost two years ago will be fully in charge and the 150 full-time professionals and the 20,000 annual volunteers will carry on.
As we walked through the massive warehouse full of thousands of boxes and bottles of stuff Bolling joked that sometimes the Food Bank gets products like raisin bran simply because there are too many raisins in the box. As he noted, “This is an interesting place to eat!”
(Click here to learn more about the Atlanta Community Food Bank.)
(Mike Klein is a journalist who has held executive and content leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production. Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)
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