Mary Jane Crouch was worried. When COVID-19 struck the Savannah area in March, and the National Association of Letter Carriers announced in May that it would not participate in food drive collection because of the pandemic, Crouch, Chief Executive of America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia, Inc., feared thousands of people would go hungry throughout the Coastal Empire.
“Our postal workers’ food drive got canceled this year because they didn’t want to handle the bags and they didn’t want to handle the food so it was like, ‘Wow! I’m not sure what we’re going to do if BC doesn’t step up’ because theirs and yours are the two-largest food drives we do all year long,” Crouch said. “We were really worried. It was just wonderful when (LTC Stephen Suhr, Benedictine Military School’s Senior Army Instructor) said, ‘We’re still in.’”
Food collection barrels and boxes have been delivered to Benedictine Military School. The truck is coming to BC on Dec. 11 to pick up donations. This year’s goal is to collect 15,000 items/dollars to help those in need.
“Benedictine Military School is proud to support America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia in this year’s food drive,” Suhr said. “What began as a simple JROTC service-learning project under LTC John Manson Owens III ’61 nearly four decades ago has grown into an annual tradition for BC, filling a critical need for food items throughout the Coastal Empire during the holiday season. And this year, due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, the U.S. Postal Service is unable to conduct its annual drive, further underscoring the importance of BC’s effort.”
Said Crouch, “The food supply chain has really been crippled a lot by the pandemic. It really and truly has impacted us and what we do. Those items that you all collect for us, the beef stew and soups and things like that, while we go out and buy the things we have to have, we tend to not have the money to buy those types of items because they’re just too expensive for us.”
For many consecutive years, BC’s food drive has been second to only the U.S. Postal Service in terms of its size and regional impact.
“Last year, it was 13,723 pounds of food and $6,300 just from BC,” Crouch said. “That’s huge. I can’t even tell you how big that it. It’s tremendous. And then we can go out and buy tractor-trailer loads of food with the cash donations.”
BC equates $1 to each food item for tracking purposes with a total goal of 15,000 items/dollars. Last year, BC donated a school-record 20,994 items, exceeding its goal of 15,000 items/dollars.
“Last year, BC had the same goal and was able to exceed it,” Suhr said. “We hope to do so again in 2020, particularly knowing how difficult this year has been for so many. And this year, due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, the U.S. Postal Service is unable to conduct its annual drive, further underscoring the importance of BC’s effort.”
CADETS’ DONATIONS PROVIDE FOOD THROUGHOUT SUMMER
At Benedictine Military School, the annual food drive is organized and promoted as a partnership between the JROTC program and the Student Government program. The Cadet leadership from both groups meets with Crouch each year to develop goals and to work the details of the collection plan. In the spirit of friendly competition for a great cause, food and money donations are tracked weekly from each class with a reward to the winning class. From special desserts at lunch to dress down privileges and movie days, the Cadet leadership works with the school administration to implement incentives that maximize participation.
“When I go pick it up that morning, because I always go over (to BC) the morning that the driver is going to pick it up, I get there and go ‘Are you kidding me?! This is unbelievable!’” Crouch said. “It’s just always so shocking and so wonderful to see. I know (the school) does a lot of competitions and (the Cadets) work really hard but it’s also nice to see that, at that age, that the children still care so much about their community.
“I know a lot of it is the competition with each other because teenagers love to be competitive but, at the same time, they get into it and they really enjoy it,” Crouch continued. “I think they know that they’re giving back on the most basic level. You can’t get any more basic than making sure someone has food to eat tonight and doesn’t go to bed hungry. They really do get involved. Years later, many of those same students go off to college and get involved with food drives and the food bank in the area where their college is because they know how important it is. That’s critical as we move through life to recognize those that have a need and to help try and fill that need.”
Crouch said BC’s annual collection and donation each December also helps to fill the void after the Thanksgiving rush.
“(BC’s donation) really does take us through the holidays because we get so depleted before Thanksgiving,” Crouch said. “(The donated food from BC) comes in and re-stocks our shelves and allows us to be able to make it through not just Christmas but into the summer months. Without this (donation from BC), I don’t know how we would get through June and July. It helps tremendously.”
COVID-19 HAS INCREASED THE NEED FOR FOOD BANKS
The need for people to utilize America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia’s service has increased because of the pandemic. More people are staying at home, even after the shelter-in-place order was lifted.
“And (public) schools are out,” Crouch said. “All of the schools got out in March. They didn’t go back after spring break. Our numbers went up dramatically with parents who couldn’t go to work because they had to stay home with their children. Or the children were home and the parents had to be home helping with virtual learning. It really did impact us both in our food distribution through our mobile food pantries as well as a lot of people being unemployed.”
Crouch said America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia distributed more than 560,000 meals to children through its grab-and-go program so that children who were not in school and needed to get meals could receive them.
“You know, 63 percent of children in Chatham County qualify for free or reduced meals,” Crouch said. “Well, they didn’t get those meals. The school system did gear up and start going to bus stops, but it took them a couple of weeks to do that. We immediately pivoted to a grab-and-go where we could provide meals as soon as possible to children. And then we started doing what we call our mobile food pantry, where we go out and distribute food directly to someone where we put it directly in the trunk so that we’re not having to contact with them so we’re not putting our volunteers or staff at risk. In the last year, we’ve provided over 24 million pounds of food. We normally distribute around 19 million pounds of food.”
According to Internal Revenue Service, a meal weighs 1.2 pounds. That includes liquid.
“A regular meal is 1 pound, and then for every dollar donated to us we can provide five meals because we buy in such bulk and we get food donated to us if we’ll pay for the transportation,” Crouch said. “I can call the Charlotte (N.C.) Food Bank and say, ‘Hey, you got anything you’re willing to share with me?’ and they’ll just make me pay the transportation. The bottom line is I can get an entire tractor-trailer load of something and transportation is like $1,000 or $800, depending on what time of year it is. So that’s a tremendous benefit to us because that gives us the leverage for our transportation budget.”
Crouch said the leadership and community service that Benedictine Military School Cadets display during the annual food drive is a cause for celebration.
“I do see the boys, that day I go out there (to BC), and they tell me, they’re very excited and they’re proud of the work they did. And they should be,” Crouch said. “A lot of kids get a lot of bad press, but you all have a great group of kids there, a great group of students.
“A lot of people that had really good jobs, they’ve lost those jobs,” Crouch continued. “Or both parents work and now one of them has to stay home so the kids can do their virtual learning. It can really impact a family long-term because they go through their savings. They go through their emergency funds. If you don’t pay the electric bill, they turn off your electricity. The one thing (parents) scrimp on is making sure their children and themselves have healthy meals. If we can fill that gap that’s what we’re all about.”