Six years ago, a semi-truck backed into the loading dock of Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin. Waiting in the chilled trailer was 38,880 pounds of LAND O LAKES® mild cheddar cheese. Although the Great Recession had officially ended, many people were still feeling its wrath as sights shifted to the new year of 2010. Here and across the country people were using food shelves on a regular basis, a change from emergency only visits. The need for food was greater than ever.
Volunteers and food bank employees moved pallets of cheese to the warehouse cooler, where they remained until area food shelves, mobile pantries, Kids Cafe programs and other partner agencies picked up what they needed.
This was the first donation of our First Run program. Part of the Land O’Lakes Foundation, First Run donates truckloads of fresh dairy products to food banks across the country each year to help alleviate hunger in local communities. By the end of the program’s first year, we had donated more than 420,000 pounds of dairy product, plus 1 million eggs and 182,000 cups of cheddar cheese sauce, to 14 food banks in 11 states.
Tomorrow is our 100th First Run donation. And to celebrate, we’re looking back at the program’s history and the people who have helped food banks feed people across the country.
How and where to fight hunger
Jim Spaight, U.S. dairy sales manager, was here 7 years ago when Land O’Lakes launched the First Run program. It was a time when Greater Twin Cities United Way, Land O’Lakes, Inc. and a handful of other Minnesota-based companies were brainstorming on how to help fight hunger. Everyone shared ideas and thoughts on what kinds of products to donate, transportation logistics, food bank networks and temperature-controlled trucks. We took those ideas back to our headquarters in Arden Hills and started figuring out how we could help. Land O’Lakes, we realized, had a lot to offer.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Why don’t we try to do something more?’” recalls Jim Spaight, U.S. dairy sales manager. “And so we did. Employees from all areas of Land O’Lakes pitched in to help. They were excited to help.”
Jim worked with our production planning team to understand production constraints to balance against the timing of donation requests. They also worked to figure out the type and quantity of food to donate for that first donation. Typically, food banks receive corporate donations of food that’s nearing the end of its shelf life or has damaged packaging. What’s unique about our First Run program is directly related to its name. Land O’Lakes makes fresh product—the first run off the production line—specifically for donation.
“This is the same type and quality of product we sell to customers, schools and restaurants,” says Jim.
At the same time, our Foundation began working with Feeding America® to better understand the types of product donations the food banks needed.
“At the time, we were working to get more dairy products to food banks,” explains Jerod Matthews, senior account manager of manufacturing sourcing at Feeding America®. “They often didn’t get a lot of dairy items because of their perishability; food banks have to be set up to handle this kind of inventory. Innovative programs like First Run worked hand-in-hand with us to make dairy items more accessible.”
After ironing out all the details, we were ready to send a truck full of cheese to a food bank in Wisconsin—the beginning of a great legacy.
More mac and cheese, please
We’ve made a lot of progress since then and some changes, too.
According to Feeding America®, macaroni and cheese is always one of the top requested products by food banks and places that feed clients onsite. The 5-pound bags (part of our K-12 foodservice offerings) are easy to prepare and can be paired with meat and produce for a complete meal. When we found out our macaroni and cheese was a hit, we adjusted our donations to include more of it.
Another thing we learned was that there is an increased need for food outside of the holiday season.
“We try to donate more during the summer months when children are not in school,” says Lydia Botham, executive director, Land O’Lakes Foundation. “At school, they’re usually provided a couple meals and snacks but in summer when they are at home, they won’t get this food.”
It’s a situation that food banks are all too familiar with; the statistics speak for themselves.
“An average of one in six children experience hunger in our communities,” says Heather Olson, director of corporate partnerships for Second Harvest Heartland in St. Paul, Minnesota. “They may not know where dinner is coming from or there may not be enough food at home over the weekend.
Imagine having to tell your children not to expect dinner tonight. That’s something we want to end. And we’re working hard to reach that goal.
We’ve increased the amount of dairy products donated and added new states each year. We’ve donated 3.5 million pounds to 54 food banks in 32 states. Later this month, we will send another truck with 40,000 lbs. of macaroni and cheese to Roadrunner Food Bank in New Mexico, our program’s 33rd state. Before the end of June, we will donate 40,000 lbs. of macaroni and cheese to both Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma and Northwest Arkansas Food Bank.
“As a food and ag company, with hunger as one of the three focus areas of our Foundation, this program is very important to us,” says Lydia.
100 and beyond
Tomorrow, a semi-truck will back into the loading dock of another food bank, this time Second Harvest Heartland. When the driver unrolls the trailer door, our 100th donation—40,000 pounds of macaroni and cheese—will greet the volunteers. Just like the very first donation, they’ll work quickly to move the pallets, this time from the truck to the freezer where the boxes will wait for pickup.
“We are so grateful for this donation from the Land O’Lakes Foundation,” says Heather. “This will help put 33,000 meals on tables throughout Minnesota and western Wisconsin. It’s overwhelming to think about how organizations like Land O’Lakes care so much.”
After six years and 3.5 million pounds of First Run food donations, Jim agrees.
“It’s phenomenal to know that we work for a company that cares enough to help others,” he says. “And to have the engagement of employees across Land O’Lakes; people who truly want to help.”
With their help—with everyone’s help—we made it to 100 donations. And we’ve only just begun.