New Hope Food Bank answers questions

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by Erin McCoy

The New Hope Food Bank has not violated any United Way of Nelson County policies and will receive its fourth and final allocation of the year.

The organization's board of directors made this decision Monday after a conversation with food bank Director Carmel Cecil about the New Hope Food Bank's recent six-month suspension from receiving food from Feeding America, Kentucky's Heartland.

As a result of information brought to light through the suspension, some United Way policies for its agencies may be revised next year, and the United Way allocation the New Hope Food Bank receives in 2012 may be impacted.

Cecil began her presentation to the board by stating that, for health reasons, she hasn't been at the food bank as often as she once was, and she added she does not believe she will ever spend as much time there as she used to spend.

Cecil admitted the food bank had violated some of Feeding America's rules for agencies that receive its food.

“(Volunteers) used some of the products that came from Feeding America to stock our store shelves, which shouldn't have been done,” Cecil told the board. The New Hope Food Bank is divided into two sections: a small store, and a larger room for items that are free for visitors to the food bank to take.

In a letter sent to the food bank Aug. 8, Feeding America wrote it had received two calls stating that people had to pay for food at New Hope. Feeding America sent two of its representatives, who reported they saw cereal and pinto beans for sale in the store that were “clearly FAKH product with the repackaged label clearly marked in bold print, 'NOT FOR SALE.'“

It is against Feeding America policy to sell their products rather than giving them away.

Feeding America representatives also reportedly witnessed a volunteer in the food pantry, in which no items are sold, apparently pressuring clients to give donations.

“A pantry volunteer was making it quite clear that everyone needed to put a donation in the box and she 'announced' it repeatedly as clients were shopping,” the letter stated. “This constant announcement seemed to make clients very uncomfortable.”

The letter also noted a donation box was in clear sight where people could be witnessed making donations, violating a second Feeding America policy that donations must be “voluntary, anonymous and inconspicuous.”

Cecil told the board she has spoken with the volunteer who asked for these donations and asked her not to repeat the transgression.

“That's their rule and we broke it, and there's no sense saying we didn't break it because we did,” Cecil told the United Way board.

Conditions of the food bank's suspension are that it has to re-apply to receive Feeding America food again after six months have expired. According to a Sept. 14 letter from Feeding America, it will also be prohibited from taking any donations at all from clients should it be granted a new membership.

When a board member asked what precautions Cecil had taken to ensure the rules aren't broken again, she responded, “My insurance would be don't go back to Feeding America again.”

But that decision will ultimately be made by the food bank's seven-member board of directors, Cecil said.

United Way board member Vilma Hagen asked whether someone is designated to take responsibility at the food bank when Cecil is not present.

“Not really,” Cecil replied, reiterating she cannot spend seven days a week there anymore.

Board member Linda Willett asked whether any changes in the operation of the food bank would be made.

“The donation box won't be allowed ever again if we go back to Feeding America,” Cecil said.

Board member Tom Isaac brought up another concern: whether volunteers get “first dibs” on the food, and are able to take some home before it is available to the general public.

“They've got the same rules as everybody else. They've got the same limits,” Cecil said, explaining people are limited in how many of a single item they can take. But she said many volunteers are allowed to take food home after volunteering Wednesday nights, so they don't have to return when the bank is open Friday.

“We've heard that volunteers basically come out of there smelling like a rose pretty much all the time,” board member Pat Shannon said. “Every time they go they get the cream of the crop.” Shannon said this presented a big problem for him.

But board member Debbie McKay pointed out that because many volunteers are low-income, she understands allowing them to save the gas money from a second trip to the food bank.

Cecil argued that volunteers don't get a better product when they pick the first bag from a shelf of identical bags of pinto beans.

Cecil emphasized the New Hope Food Bank is still operating and still serving a large number of people, and said United Way funds were not going to waste.

“They're only a small part of what we have at the food bank,” she said of Feeding America. “Thanks to United Way, ... we can get a truckload of food out of Illinois every three months, but without United Way we wouldn't be able to do that.”

Board Treasurer Kenny Fogle said he believed the food bank was still using its United Way allocations - $18,000 in 2011 - for the “right reasons.”

“I don't see that you violated any - I mean, that's my personal opinion - that you violated anything with United Way at all,” Fogle said. But, Fogle suggested, it may be necessary to revise the agreement United Way signs with its agencies in the future.

“Don't we have something about following all federal and state guidelines?” Willett argued, pointing out that Feeding America distributes U.S. Department of Agriculture food. “It's a federal guideline that they did not follow.”

Willett added she was concerned it did not appear the food bank planned to make any changes.

“Technically, they have not done anything that violates us,” Fogle reiterated.

New Hope Food Bank already signed an agreement with United Way in July in case it receives funding next year, and that agreement has not been violated, either, Fogle said. As a result, any changes to that agreement could not be made for 2012.

Next summer's agreement may be different, and may include new rules on what volunteers can and can't do, the board concluded - pointing out that these changes are likely to apply to all United Way agencies.

“We can still strongly suggest that they do this for 2012,” Isaac said.

Where the violations may impact the New Hope Food Bank more immediately is in the agency's 2012 allocation. The allocations committee meets in February, and can take the Feeding America suspension into account when deciding how much funding to give the food bank, Willett said.

“I don't know where we'd be without you all and I'm sorry this has happened,” Cecil concluded. “We'll just keep struggling and doing as long as we can do. ... We thank you all for letting us even be able to tell our side of the story.”