Food bank moves, expands to keep up with 'huge need in our community'

The new State College Food Bank looks like a minimarket.

There are shopping carts and baskets for clients to use when picking up their items. And with a new location comes an entirely new vision for the local nonprofit.

This includes a new way to service the area and a new name. It’s no longer called the Food Bank of the State College Area.

“When we found a permanent home, we wanted to do it right,” said Executive Director Carol Pioli.

Space was found for its new location at 1321 S. Atherton St. in April 2013; it was formerly Paul & Tony’s Stereo, Pioli said. The lease was signed in September, and plans went to the borough for approval in November.

After renovations and three weeks of moving from 276 W. Hamilton Ave., the food bank opened on April 1.

“It’s a world of difference here,” Pioli said. “We were only supposed to be at Hamilton Avenue temporarily, but it ended up being years.”

The food bank was housed there since 2007, after moving from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church when it outgrew the space.

The food bank moved from a facility downtown that was only 1,400 square feet to what is now 4,800 square feet with renovations that include a grocery area, freezer storage room, warehouse, waiting room and administrative offices.

The new facility costs about $900,000, Pioli said. The food bank was able to make a down payment on the building last year and is relying on donations to keep those payments up.

Families are eligible to shop at the food bank once every 30 days.

The food bank is a volunteer-driven organization with 65 regular volunteers, including Bonnie Tkach, who has been with the organization for more than a year and others call a “Jane of all trades” when it comes to responsibilities.

“There is a huge need in our community that people don’t understand or realize,” she said.

The number of families served from April 2013 to April 2014 was up by 50, Pioli said. Last month, the food bank served 279 families. According to statistics from the food bank, 37 percent of the people it serves are under the age of 18. Annually, the food bank serves about 2,200.

But the food distribution process has changed.

Prior to moving to the new location, volunteers would bring grocery bags of food to families in need. Now, eligible families are able to go to the facility and shop with a volunteer grocery assistant. They’re eligible for a certain amount of each item based on household size, Pioli said.

Most households the food bank serves are those with one or two people living there, but Pioli said the food bank also serves a family of 11.

The distribution operation changed to the “client choice” model, which gives clients the option to choose the food they like and what fits the family diet, Pioli said.

“People can choose rather than be given bags,” Pioli said. “This minimizes taking things that would be of waste to them if they don’t like the food, and more accommodating to peoples’ diets who need gluten-free or have diabetes.”

Pioli said the food bank is working on future initiatives to enhance its mission. That includes expanding services by teaming up with nutrition students from Penn State who can meet with families about the food they should be consuming. It’s also working to provide fresh milk to families instead of boxed milk.

“We want to provide the best for people,” Pioli said.

The State College Food Bank is partnered with the food pantries in Philipsburg, Snow Shoe, Howard, Bellefonte Faith Centre, Centre Hall and Aaronsburg.

The facility is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday to serve clients and take donations.