There are many people at the Connecticut Food Bank who help to source, package and transport the food that reaches you and the people you serve. In this ongoing feature, we will help you get to know some of the team. This month, we’re chatting with Carolyn Russell, Director of Procurement.
What do you do at the Connecticut Food Bank?
I lead the department that is responsible for bringing in food from all available sources, which includes donations, purchases, and government programs.
Donations come from both local and national donors.
Locally, the Procurement team builds relationships with food manufacturers, wholesale distributors, retail stores and farms to secure donations.
At the national level, our relationship with Feeding America means that we have access to food from national companies such as Kellogg, Kraft, General Mills, Walmart, Target, BJ’s Wholesale Clubs and others. These national companies make agreements with Feeding America to donate to food banks across the country.
Through Feeding America, we are able to access fresh produce year-round. With Connecticut’s short growing season and limited crops, this is a huge benefit for our network. The produce we bring in through Feeding America does have a fee associated with it to help cover some of the cost for the growers to harvest and pack the produce, as well as a fee to transport produce from all over the country. This fee is absorbed by Connecticut Food Bank so programs can access the produce at no charge.
Our Buyers Club purchases allow member programs to take advantage of our buying power to help them stretch their food budget. We negotiate lower pricing because we can purchase in truckload quantities for most items. We focus on staple items like peanut butter, jelly, UHT milk, rice and protein, but we also take advantage of opportunity buys that are presented to us. We recently hired a buyer who will track purchasing trends and work toward building a core list of items that are requested most often by programs.
We purchase foods for our Kids’ BackPack program that focuses on providing food to school children to bridge the weekend meal gap. The food purchased meets strict nutrition standards, is shelf stable and is kid friendly. Along with the Member Services team, we continue to look for ways to meet these high standards and increase the amount of food we provide. The backpacks are distributed with no fee to participating schools in our service area.
Government-funded food purchases:
TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program) is a federally funded program designed to supplement the diets of low income people. We order food from the USDA that is then distributed to member programs.
CSFP (Commodity Supplemental Food Program) is a federally funded program that provides a monthly box of nutritious foods to seniors. The foods included in the box are mandated by USDA guidelines we follow when ordering food from the USDA for these monthly food boxes. We work with senior housing and community centers to distribute these boxes.
CTNAP (Connecticut Nutritional Assistance Program) is a state funded program that provides funds for Connecticut Food Bank to purchase nutritious foods from Connecticut food distributors.
What is your favorite part about your job?
I like coming to work every day knowing that at the end of the day my efforts are helping someone.
What is your greatest challenge?
I think the biggest challenge for procurement is that there are so many variables regarding what is donated. Donations, by nature, are items that are not salable because they are either close to or past their “Best By” date, have some sort of quality issue or are damaged in some way. In most cases, donations come in with very little notice, maybe a few days. This unpredictable stream of donations, mixed with the potentially short dates or quality issues, makes it difficult to manage the stream of products coming in. It’s tough to plan purchases because we could purchase an item and then have a donation of the same or similar item the next day.
What would you want people to know about your position?
I’ve been in the procurement part of food banking since 1999 and I’ve seen so many changes in the food industry and in food banking. I think it’s important for people to know that the food industry has been through some big changes that have really impacted donations. When I first started working at a food bank 75 to 85% of the food we distributed was donated, shelf stable, dry and canned food from manufacturers and distributors. Now about 65 to 70% of the food is donated, and about 50% of that donated food is fresh produce and frozen protein. Inventory control is much better at food manufacturers and distributors and the secondary market has grown substantially, so much of what used to be donated is now being sold to discount stores.
Why is food insecurity important to you?
An anonymous quote I found sums it up pretty well for me: “A person who knows where their next meal is coming from can have many problems, a person who does not has only one.”
What is your favorite recipe to make and/or eat?
I love to experiment when I cook and rarely follow a recipe, but one recipe that my family loves is spaghetti squash lasagna. It’s pretty simple and fairly healthy. See Carolyn’s recipe here.