Feed More cooks 1,000-plus meals daily
Perhaps no story personifies the work that Feed More Inc., the comprehensive community food agency that feeds the hungry of Central Virginia, than this particular one.
One Friday afternoon, one of the hundreds of Feed More volunteers was out delivering food for kids to eat during the weekend as part of the agency’s backpack program. The backpacks are filled with food that kids can eat Friday afternoon through Monday morning. During the rest of the week, the kids are fed at school.
There was nobody around — no kids, no students, no parent — when the volunteer came across a young boy, 5 or 6 years old, sitting on the curb.
The volunteer approached the boy, asking him where he was supposed to be. She told him she was going to find a teacher to help him get to where he belonged.
The boy shook his head no.
“I’m next,” he said.
Perplexed, the volunteer asked, “What do you mean, you’re next?”
The boy said, “I’m next. My teacher tells me there’s one more backpack left in the school, and if the kid who is supposed to get it doesn’t show up, she’s going to give it to me.
It’s because of those types of stories — and more importantly that type of need — that Mark Smith, operator of four Midas of Richmond automotive repair shops, donates so much time, energy, money and most of all, resources for the nonprofits he supports.
It is because of that philanthropy that Mr. Smith has earned this year’s Tire Business Tire Dealer Humanitarian Award, given to a tire dealer or retreader who makes a difference in his or her community.
The three major nonprofits that Mr. Smith supports, each with eight-figure-plus budgets, offer plenty of those types of stories.
At St. Joseph’s Villa, an organization dedicated to helping children and youth from all socioeconomic backgrounds, some with severe developmental disabilities or mental health issues, Mr. Smith is in the midst of a 10-year, $25,000 annual commitment to maintain the gardening program and its administrator.
While that program might not sound vital to an outsider, the stories that officials from the Villa share demonstrate its value.
According to them, some of the Villa children never have seen a tomato or eggplant or sweet potato, let alone eaten one.
“Some of these kids are not easy to spend time with,” said Kathryn Williams, the Villa’s garden coordinator. “Some can be violent. But when they’re in the garden, it’s different. I don’t know why, but you take it and run with it.”
Jenny Friar, director of development at the Villa, said the garden serves two purposes. The first, she said, is so children can learn to cook, grow and eat healthy food, perhaps inspiring them to do the same on their own.
The second, she said, is simply “because so much good things happen in a garden.” The Villa holds integrated speech therapy and team building exercises there, and it allows older kids, some with anger management issues, to serve as mentors to kids with autism.
“It’s amazing,” Ms. Friar said. “These are kids who have never been helpers; they have only been helped. So it’s important to be a helper even if you’ve been on the receiving end of generosity. We think we need both for the soul.”
The garden also has become a community room, so to speak, for several Richmond-area clubs.
“It’s amazing in terms of spreading community awareness and work with those groups,” Ms. Friar said. “We didn’t have that before. We couldn’t bring 50 area volunteers and put them in a room with kids. This has been our doorway into the community.”
The garden is just one “classroom” for the gardening program. There’s also a greenhouse, where some of the plants are grown, as well as a working, restaurant-style kitchen, 7,500 square feet of space where Ms. Williams teaches kids how to transform their produce into delicious foods, all in the name of eating healthier.
“I tell our kids, eating three times a day is a common denominator,” Ms. Williams said. “If you know how to do it, and do it well, you’ll be in demand.”
It wasn’t too long ago when the kids made pizzas and delivered them to one of the Midas of Richmond locations.
“One of reasons we got behind St. Joseph’s is their vision,” Mr. Smith said. “They have a vision that really goes community-wide. You see a lot of their program … encapsulated on campus. They take their efforts way off campus, integrate other non-profits, and they create such synergy community-wide, it’s hard not to support them.
“It’s really dynamic … cutting edge, and that’s why we stood behind them and continue to stand behind them.”
Mr. Smith continues to stand behind Virginia Blood Services (VBS), a provider of blood products to more than 20 area hospitals. The relationship began innocently on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks in New York and nearby Washington, D.C., when Mr. Smith suggested to a VBS official that Midas of Richmond hold a blood drive in anticipation of elevated need.
In return, Mr. Smith said, he would donate a certificate for a free oil change to any blood donor.
The official reluctantly agreed to try it, and some 18 years of blood drives later, Midas of Richmond has accounted for nearly 23,000 pints of blood.
Mr. Smith holds blood drives at each of his four locations, five times a year, and each session attracts nearly 400 donors among all four shops. VBS brings in staffers from other locations to help collect the blood.
To put it in perspective, VBS said its average blood drive collects about 20 pints of blood. The average Midas blood drive collects about 200 pints, equal to 10 of those everyday drives.
Mr. Smith only recently initiated a program in which platelet donors receive a coupon for a free tire.
The need, said Michelle Westbay, marketing and communications for VBS, is constant.
“Over the years, even though technologies have made advancements with utilization going down in hospitals, we are also seeing a decline in donations,” she said. “Blood products are always needed, especially platelets.”
She said cancer patients tend to use platelets the most, and their shelf life is five days.
“There’s a perception that blood is just sitting on the shelves, just waiting to be used, when in reality there is a shelf life, it does expire, and it’s constantly moving.”
At one time, she said, people thought it was their civic duty to donate blood. Those folks are aging, “and now we’re just not seeing that in the demographic amount to help support the cause.”
The challenge, according to VBS Executive Director Todd Cahill, is to keep blood donations “top of mind,” particularly with the younger generation.
“Simply and consistently among generations, the No. 1 reason (people donate) is they are asked,” Mr. Cahill said. “Finding people who are passionate about making that personal ask is how we sustain the blood supply.”
Enter Mr. Smith, who has made blood drives one of the central themes in his marketing campaign, relaying that message through radio, television and social media.
“They hear that consistent message, the need, and it resonates because it is that personal ask: ‘We need you to donate blood, and here’s why,’ ” Mr. Cahill said. “We’re challenged that, in a day and age when many of the younger demographics want to text or use electronic communication, you lose that personal ask, through those personal modes of communication.
“It’s important to us to still have that strong support to convey that personal ask in a way that resonates among many different generations.”
Mr. Cahill said VBS analyzes new donors, repeat donors and donor frequency. Mr. Smith’s blood drives help to improve all three.
“By Mark hosting these drives multiple times a year, generating that loyalty, generating that awareness, we are growing our frequency, we are growing our new donors and retaining our donors because of it,” Mr. Cahill said. “They are loyal to Mark, they’re loyal to his brand, they’re loyal to us and loyal to the community.”
The certificate for a free oil change certainly motivates donors, Mr. Cahill said, but so does Mr. Smith’s message.
“Do I think it would be as successful if we put up a flier for a free oil change?” he asked. “Maybe. But it doesn’t work nearly as well as it does when the person behind the message is a person like Mark.”
Those at Feed More also benefit from Mr. Smith’s marketing, as well as his business acumen.
In fact, Mr. Smith was deeply involved in recruiting Feed More’s executive director, Doug Pick, to the burgeoning organization — it merged with Meals on Wheels in 2005 — to bring a more business-style discipline.
In the six years that Mr. Pick has been with Feed More, he has expanded the group’s reach from covering 48 percent of the food need to 55 percent, he said, using 4-percent fewer personnel. Meanwhile, expenses that are part of Feed More’s $50 million annual budget have grown just 1.5 percent in the last three years total.
“It’s all about feeding people,” Mr. Smith said. “Doug took that mission mindset and added an extensive corporate background to it, which we needed. And it really has worked out well for everybody.
Mr. Pick, who spent 20 years at International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) and 12 years at Capital One Financial Corp., said the transformation was accomplished through business rigor and discipline, first introducing a performance management system, then project management, to the nonprofit.
“Very quickly we brought in very significant financial management and systems, and ensuing disciplines,” Mr. Pick said. “Then … we evolved and adjusted accordingly to get the right folks on board to serve this more robust mission.”
While staff turnover was rampant — the entire management team was replaced — and morale fell off, then peaked, Feed More continued to do what it does best — feed the hungry.
Today, Feed More, with a staff of 96 working closely with 200-plus volunteers per day, distributes 28 million pounds of food each year. It services nearly 300 agencies, including food pantries, churches, schools, childcare centers and senior centers.
The staff at Feed More cooks 1,000-plus meals daily to feed the homeless and seniors either at the facility or through Meals on Wheels, as it serves meals to 2,000-plus schoolchildren Monday through Friday. In the area serviced by Feed More, it is estimated that more than 200,000 are food insecure, and 50,000 of those are children.
It wasn’t too long ago that one of Feed More’s board members asked a question that few had considered before: What do the kids who are serviced by the program eat during the weekend?
They discovered that some didn’t. Thus, the backpack program was born.
It was a learning process. When some kids were reluctant to take the first set of backpacks, they realized that the kids didn’t want to be seen carrying a sack with the food bank’s logo.
Once that was solved, officials found some food in cans being returned. It turns out that many children didn’t have access to can openers.
Today, the backpack of food comes in easy-to-open packages.
Kathryn Rawley Erhardt, planned leadership and gifts for Feed More, tells the story of second-grader named Sam.
Sam, 7 years old, struggled in school. He never smiled. He had problems focusing, Ms. Erhardt said, and officials noticed he was gorging food on Fridays.
One day, Sam’s school principal called him in the office and asked him to sit down.
“He was in trouble, maybe was going to get yelled at,” Ms. Erhardt said.
Instead, Sam was told he was going to start receiving a backpack of food.
“All of a sudden, he broke out in a huge smile,” Ms. Erhardt said. “Then the principal said, ‘This is the best part: You’re going to get one of these bags of food every Friday for the rest of school.’
“Sam started jumping up and down, all over a $5 bag of food.
“But the best part is this: Sam started doing better in school, helping teachers. He wasn’t getting in fights, and Sam was smiling, all because somebody cared enough that he got something to eat.
“There’s no reason why anybody in the U.S., certainly not in this area, that someone should go hungry.”