The Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida was one of the 200+ food banks born in the early 1980s. At its 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 products held by the federal government. Almost immediately, the cooperative began recovering other food products through food drives and by salvaging nutritious foods from retailers and growers. Throughout the 1980s, 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 1980s, the cooperative changed its name to the Southwest Florida Food Bank to reflect its regional service area.
Few would dispute that Harry Chapin was one of the most inspiring individuals when hunger began to enter America’s conscience in the late 1970s. Harry was a popular folk/rock performer ("Taxi," "Cats in the Cradle," "Circle") who donated the proceeds from every other concert he gave to end hunger. He also co-founded the organization World Hunger Year. Harry spent a great deal of time on Capitol Hill, convincing members of Congress and their staff 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.
By the end of the 1980s, the Southwest Florida Food Bank had grown and was in dire need of a new facility. The food bank had become the exclusive distribution agent for USDA and FEMA commodities for Southwest Florida. Events such as the Publix Holiday Food Drive, the Scouting for Food Drive, and the Letter Carriers Food Drive anchored ongoing efforts to recover quality food from a variety of Southwest Florida sources. Through its membership with Feeding America (formerly America’s Second Harvest), the Southwest Florida Food Bank also gained access to truckloads of donated food from outside the Sunshine State.
In 1994, a former meat processing plant on Alicia Street in Fort Myers was purchased and became the new home for the Food Bank. This effort bore testimony to the communitywide support enjoyed by the Food Bank – practically every area foundation as well as hundreds of private and corporate donations made possible the move to the new site on Alicia Street. Within three years, however, even this building could not hold all the emergency food collected for hungry people. To this day, the food bank leases an additional 20,000 square feet of warehouse space one mile from headquarters in the State Farmers Market. There is no refrigeration and only a temporary lease at this satellite site.
Also in 1994, Sandy Chapin, Harry’s widow, provided permission to incorporate the name of her late husband into the name of the Southwest Florida food bank. The name change honored a man who gave a great deal of his talent, treasure, and energy to the cause of hunger, and provided the food bank with a unique identity. Even today, Harry’s family and original band continue to help the food bank through an annual concert held in Florida.
From the initial federal surplus cheese distribution in 1983, the Harry Chapin Food Bank continues to grow and expand in order to meet the needs of hungry people in Southwest Florida. Today, the food bank provides food for more than 30,000 individuals each month. In the past fiscal year, (Jul 1, 2010 – Jun 30, 2011) the Harry Chapin Food Bank distributed nearly 12.5 million pounds of food to Southwest Floridians in need, with a food value of more than $20 million.
In December of 2008, our organization secured a 48,000-square-foot building (with 40,000-square-feet of storage capacity) located at 3760 Fowler Street, with a lease to own option. This new warehouse provides the capacity for future expansion and food distribution in an effort to meet the ongoing needs of hungry children, elderly, working poor and other disadvantaged families in Southwest Florida. The new structure has replaced our previously inefficient warehouse that included only 12,000 square feet of space with inadequate refrigeration and a secondary 20,000-square-foot dry goods warehouse. Both of these facilities were inadequate in size, in logistical capacity, and as safe food environments.
Since transitioning to our new warehouse, our organization has achieved significant growth. In the fiscal year of 2008/2009, the Harry Chapin Food Bank distributed more than 6 million pounds of food throughout the five county area. Last fiscal year, the food bank distributed approximately 12.5 million pounds of food. Because of the improved facility and logistics, the Harry Chapin Food Bank has increased distribution by 108%, giving more than 1 million pounds of nutritious food per month- to those in need in Southwest Florida.