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County’s food bank now needs virtual food, too

on September 24, 2008


The warehouse of the Alameda County Community Food Bank is a center of constant activity. Every day, delivery trucks bustle in and out of loading zones as workers drop off grocery deliveries from growers and discount sellers, volunteers sort and package food items, and employees from local nonprofit agencies go “shopping” for needed products. And as the holiday season approaches, companies and schools will begin their canned food drives, which have become classic exercises in civic engagement.

But this American tradition, like so many other things, has gone online in what are now called “virtual food drives.” “You don’t have to bring in canned goods, and there is no need for food pick-up trucks,” said Brian Higgins, spokesman for the Alameda County Community Food Bank (ACCFB). “You simply make a few clicks online, and you’re done.”

The Alameda food bank, which serves the whole county from offices near the Oakland Coliseum, is set to launch its own Virtual Food Drive in early October, in time for the upcoming holiday season. The site functions much like an online shopping site. Donors click on the types of goods they’d like to purchase, such as milk or bread, and the food bank allocates that money for those items. “It’s just a great way for people to feel more involved in the donation process online,” Higgins said. “Rather than giving to some general fund, they know exactly where their money is going and how far it can go.”

Front entrance of the Alameda food bank

Front entrance of the Alameda food bank

For many companies and schools, traditional canned food drives require additional manpower. People volunteer as food drive coordinators to handle the logistics of promoting the event, monitoring goals, and scheduling pick-up times. The Virtual Food Drive eliminates many of these hassles. Coordinators from participating institutions can track the progress of their group’s target contribution amount. “They can log into their account and view in real-time the amount they’ve donated and how much they have to go before reaching their goal,” said Higgins. “In a traditional canned food drive, it can take a few weeks for us to tally up checks and food donations.”

Virtual Food Drives also have an environmental incentive. “We are reducing our carbon footprint by not having to send out our delivery trucks. They make many trips especially during the holiday season,” Higgins said. “Instead, we have the funds available right in the bank.”

Like other food banks, Alameda’s is able to buy food items at deeply discounted prices. On the Virtual Food Drive page, donors will be able to compare how much the food bank can buy, with donated funds, to what individuals could afford at the grocery store. “It’s amazing how far we can go with a little money,” Higgins said. “We buy in bulk from wholesale distributors, and we have close relationships with farmers. We simply have more resources than the average Joe.”

The Alameda food bank warehouse.

The Alameda food bank warehouse.

The Virtual Food Drive is the brainchild of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. “Online donations have become a strong trend,” said Michael Enos, chief technology officer for Second Harvest, who oversaw its development. “We wanted to capitalize on that as much as possible.” Second Harvest gave the software to the Alameda bank, he said, because both share the same commitment to ending hunger. “We’re treating the Virtual Food Drive as shareware, free to any food bank that wants to use it,” Enos said.

Second Harvest has done well since the software’s implementation in 2005. The Virtual Food Drive’s donations have increased considerably every year since then. And with the rising costs of living and the struggling economy, finding new revenue streams is a top priority. “We’ve seen a spiked increase in demand the last two years, and we are able to meet that demand thanks in part to the Virtual Food Drive,” said Enos.

The Alameda food bank has seen similar trends in terms of increasing need. Referrals from their food help lines have seen nearly a three-quarters increase since 2006, and they now serve 40,000 people a week. “And we’re not just serving the traditionally low-income families anymore,” said Higgins. “There’s a steady stream of middle-class families that can’t make ends meet, so the economic downturn has hit everyone hard. It’s all the more reason to expand our fundraising reach.”

Asked whether or not the Alameda food bank eventually wants the Virtual Food Drive to replace traditional canned food drives, Higgins responded, “We have no plans to do away with the bins and barrels approach. Donating is a bit like Christmas shopping,” he said.  “Sometimes you’re just too busy to go to the store and going online is the only realistic option. It’s taking some action that counts.”||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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