35 Years of Feeding SW Florida, As the Need Continues to Grow

When the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida opened its doors as the Lee County Food Cooperative in 1983, who could have imagined that 35 years later the food bank would distribute 22,300,000 pounds of food in a single year?

The food bank's reach has grown from a handful of partner agencies to more than 150 today. Through food pantries, soup kitchens, emergency shelters and disaster relief agencies, the food bank keeps hunger at bay for nearly 160,000 individuals (50,000 of them children) each year. They may be laid off, underemployed, dealing with illness, trying to recover lost wages or facing damages to home and property.

"We're still here leading our community in the fight to end hunger," said Richard LeBer, president and CEO. This anniversary year, the food bank is more deeply committed than ever to its vision that "no one has to go hungry."

A United Way partner agency, "the food bank is doing a tremendous job of expanding its programs and working with its affiliated agencies to feed hungry children, families, elderly and individuals," said Cliff Smith, president, United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee. "The tremendous passion for feeding people exhibited by the staff, board and volunteers make them truly a role model for all of us."

Proud milestones along the way:

  • 1985: Becomes Southwest Florida Food Bank
  • 1990: Affiliates with America's Second Harvest, now known as Feeding America - the national organization of food banks.
  • 1993: Begins food distribution in Collier County.
  • 1994: Names Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida, a tribute to the late singer who passionately fought hunger.
  • 2009: First refrigerated truck is packed with fresh produce.
  • 2009: Debuts WINK Feeds Families Hunger Walk, raising $50,000. Last year, this signature event brought in $325,000!
  • 2009: Moves to its present 55,000-square-foot warehouse and offices on Fowler Street, with room to expand.
  • 2010: Launches mobile pantry program, with a major goal of increasing distribution of fresh food.
  • 2012: Begins operating from a warehouse in Naples.
  • 2015: Starts federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program for seniors for the first time in Florida.
  • 2017: Launches Care & Share: Senior Feeding Campaign and moves to larger space in Collier County.
  • 2017: Distributes 22.3 million pounds of food at end of fiscal year (June 30) - 25 percent more than in 2013!

History of the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida

While hunger, homelessness, poverty, and unemployment have always been present in the United States, these problems grew worse in the 1980's. The federal government's decision to withdraw funding from hundreds of state mental institutions, the energetic stigmatization (deserved or not) of those subsisting the "welfare state," widespread layoffs in our nation's manufacturing sector, and growing numbers of Americans seeking emergency food were just a few of the factors and indicators related to the rise of these problems in the 1980's.

Because of these problems, the 1980's also saw the emergence of "Food Banks" across America - organizations that recover, transport, stabilize, and distribute emergency food from a central, refrigerated warehouse to a network of non-profit agencies providing direct distribution to people at risk of hunger. Few would have suggested back then that these food banks - members of America's Second Harvest, the Nation's Food Bank Network - would by 2005 be recovering over 2 billion pounds of fresh, frozen, boxed, and canned food and distributing it to 24 million Americans in need of emergency food each year.

The Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida was one of the 200+ food banks born in the late 1970's and early 1980's. At it's inception in 1983, the food bank was known as the Lee County Food Cooperative. The Cooperative's primary responsibility was to help distribute the huge surpluses of cheese and other dairy commodities held by the federal government. Almost immediately, the Cooperative began recovering other food from retailers and growers. Throughout the 1980's, the Cooperative grew in size and effectiveness, earning the reputation it deserves today as the #1 safety net for the hungry in Southwest Florida. In the late 198's, the Cooperative changed its name to the Southwest Florida Food Bank to reflect its regional service area.

Fortunately, the late 1980's saw new attention to the challenge of human hunger. With instant news reporting, the nation now saw first hand the effects of human starvation in faraway counties like Biafra and Bangladesh. In the U.S., the hunger and poverty of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and in America's inner cities were no longer invisible. The problem of childhood hunger began to attract attention.

Part of this new attention to hunger in the 1980's came through music, stories, and acts of conscience that would later manifest themselves in events like Live Aid or songs like "We Are the World." One of the most inspiring individuals at the start of America's growing conscientious about hunger was Harry Chapin. Harry was a popular folk/rock performer (Taxi, Cats in the Cradle) who donated the proceeds from every other concert he gave to end hunger. He also co-founded the World Hunger Year. Harry spent a great deal of time on Capitol Hill convincing Members of Congress and their staff to enact to enact solutions to the solvable problem of hunger. Tragically, Harry Chapin died in a car accident in 1981 at the age of 39. In 1987, Harry was posthumously awarded the Special Congressional Gold Medal for his tireless fight against hunger.

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