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Vinegar to Vegetables: Founding Director Reflects on River Bend Food Bank’s 40-Year History

By August 25, 2022No Comments

As we tell the story of the Food Bank and its future, we need to put it in the context of the past. So, Tom and Caren, tell us – how and why did you both get involved?

Tom sighs, smiles, and says, “I was at a crossroads in my career in 1982. At that time, the Food Bank had just been founded as River Bend Food Reservoir. When I heard about the concept of food banking, which was brand new, I thought it made a lot of sense. I got an opportunity to interview with Bud Vogel (co-founder and long-time Board Chair) and started at the Food Bank’s first location over in Moline. After about 30 days, I told Bud ‘I’m going to need some help,’ because I was the only employee!” Tom laughs. “I knew Steve Wagenecht since childhood, and I can’t say enough about what he did for us. Steve ran the warehouse and was my right-hand man for the next three decades.” Caren adds, “To hear of all the food that was being wasted and how successfully it could be redistributed to those in need … we just … we never had any doubts. We never looked back. It was just the right thing to do.” She smiles at Tom. “Now, I admit, I changed my mind a couple of times early on when I realized how hard it was to solicit food….”

Tell us about some of those first-year experiences, getting donations.

“Well, the Greater Chicago Food Depository sent over our very first donation for distribution in February of 1982 — half a semi of grapefruit juice,” Tom says. He and Caren both chuckle. “And we were told to make sure we shake up the glass bottles for an agency because grapefruit sediment settles at the bottom of the bottle and doesn’t look too appealing.” Tom remembers, “In the early days, I’d have a spreadsheet of the handful of food items we had. A pantry would call, tell me what they wanted, usually small quantities of items – three cans of corn, one loaf of bread, etc., and I’d go and count it out and set it aside.”

That first year, River Bend Food Reservoir distributed 190,000 pounds of food through partner agencies. We now distribute around 500,000 pounds of food every week. We scan food items into our online inventory system and track all the orders in real time with a fully computerized database.

Caren comments, “I remember Tom coming home after spending the day trying to get (food) donations. He’d say, ‘This store gave us five-gallon drums of vinegar.’ And I’d think ‘Oh, it HAS to get better than this!’” She smiles and squeezes Tom’s shoulder. “And it did.”

Community businesses and organizations have been very supportive, since the beginning, of the work the Food Bank does. Can you talk a little about that?

Caren responds, “It was the farm implement crisis that really was the catalyst for a lot of food pantries to form in the 1980s, and the Food Bank was needed to support them. I’m proud of our community. We’re a community that really cares about people.”

During that first year, River Bend Food Bank worked with 70 partner organizations — food pantries, childcare centers, senior living complexes. Today, the Food Bank distributes over 20 million meals through more than 300 partner agencies across 23 counties in eastern Iowa and western Illinois.

Tom adds, “Every day I was thankful to be there.” He chokes up a bit. “It was a huge blessing.” “If people could see the face of hunger like we see…,” Caren reflects. “People don’t want others to know that they don’t have food. When we first had the backpack program, I would see kids getting their food and clutching it like their life depended on it. It has a huge impact on you to see that.” Tom replies, “Food insecurity is truly a bi-partisan issue. We can all still agree that no one should go hungry. We are so excited about the growth (through the capital campaign). We want the Food Bank to continue to grow.”