Meet Dan Flowers of Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank

The following interview is part of the Philanthropy Roundtable’s “Free to Give” series highlighting the impact that philanthropy can have when Americans have the right to give freely to the causes and communities they care about most. Learn more here.

“The Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank serves a mixed demographic: our two urban centers are Akron and Canton, and then we also serve a fairly large rural area. We serve an eight-county region, where six of those eight would be considered rural. There are roughly 250,000 people experiencing food insecurity in our area.”

“Coming out of 2019, the economy was doing well, we had some of the lowest unemployment rates and we were actually making progress on food insecurity and poverty. Our foodbank here was closer to filling the hunger gap than we’ve ever been. But then the pandemic hit.”

“We had lines well over a mile long at our food distribution centers. A year into the pandemic I think most Americans are aware of their local foodbank in ways they never were before. It’s such a stark contrast. The photos and videos of long lines of cars at parking lot food distribution centers have been quite an indelible image.”

“COVID-19 had a huge impact on our network. The vast majority of the charities and food pantries – we have 500 soup kitchens, homeless shelters and food pantries that are members of our foodbank – here have no paid staff and are often operated by retirees. Of course, those were also the same ones we were most concerned about with COVID-19, so we had pantries closing all over.”

“We had to pivot our response. We have about 12,000 volunteers a year who come in and help us serve food in our warehouse, and we quickly realized that we couldn’t make that happen with the kind of social distancing that was required. It took us some time to adjust and adapt to the situation, but we switched over to putting together food boxes, distributing them and ramping up for big parking lot food giveaways.”

“We started to do food deliveries. Normally, the pantries and charities would come to us and we would distribute from there, but with the pandemic we knew we had to step in and set up a food delivery program immediately. The 42 members of the National Guard who have been with us since the beginning have been a huge help.”

“We’ve done over 1,000 food deliveries in the past year. In 2019, we did zero. I’m so proud of how nimble we’ve been in our response; it was just a full-on disaster response. I was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There were many similarities, and we learned a lot during Katrina that we have been able to put into practice now.”

“We learned a lot about duty during this, and that’s been a defining thing for us. Many of us were really scared to go home to our families, we were out there without masks for the first month, having tons of interactions with huge lines of cars and people. The foodbank volunteers accepted incredible risk, but they knew they had to be there and put in the work. We had a job to do and someone had to do it. There was zero complaint.”

“At the same time, we were anticipating being flooded with the most significant surge in food insecurity that we’ve ever faced in the area and we had no idea if we would have the funds to operate and meet that need. We had just kicked off our annual Harvest for Hunger campaign, our biggest annual fundraiser. Literally 10 days after we kicked that off, all of the companies – our corporate partners who participate in the campaign – were shutting down and sending people home. We were like, ‘Oh my goodness, how are we going to survive?’”

“Then the calls started coming in. Certainly, from donor-advised funds, many of our donors who had previously supported the foodbank made additional contributions from their donor-advised funds. Local community foundations like the Akron Community Foundation came to our aid.”

“A lot of these donor-advised fund gifts came in unrestricted and allowed us to get right to work and put the money where it was needed most. The Akron Community Foundation and others also really stepped up and made sure funds got to us when we needed them, and as a trusted voice, they were an important conduit for philanthropic giving.”

“The generosity just poured in. We raised more money last year than we’ve ever raised. People saw what we were up against and really came through with their support. I can’t tell you how many times our staff members, in exhausted moments of reflection, said ‘Well, at least we don’t have to worry about money.’”

“The community really stepped up and covered all of our costs, putting us in a position to go into 2021 with a little bit of dry powder. In normal times, I’d usually spend half my time on fundraising and philanthropy, but when you’re in crisis mode, there’s no time to do that. That’s why the huge response we saw from the community was so crucial.”

“We’re going to continue to procure food at 2020 demand levels to be safe. We did 37 million pounds of food last year. We don’t think, and sure hope, demand will be that high this year, but we are prepared for whichever way this year takes us.”

– Dan Flowers, president and CEO of the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank in Akron, Ohio

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