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The Hoosier Hills Food Bank’s new high-capacity storage cooler, funded by a grant from the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County, will enable fresh, nutritious food to reach more than 28,000 low-income families in the area.

Picture a dumpster overflowing with yogurt. Thousands and thousands of containers of it are piled into a metal bin, representing enough calcium and protein to fortify a whole district. Yet none of that high-quality nutrition can reach the tens of thousands of people in south central Indiana who can’t afford to feed themselves and their families. It’s a simple storage problem: yogurt, like all dairy products and most produce, needs to be refrigerated to stay fresh, and until recently it was not possible to keep large quantities of donated foods cool until local agencies could collect them.

This was the problem that the Hoosier Hills Food Bank (HHFB) faced before applying for a grant from the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County. HHFB is a nonprofit organization that collects surplus food from grocery stores, wholesalers, restaurants, food drives, farms, and other sources and distributes it to nearly 100 local organizations that serve people struggling with hunger in Monroe, Brown, Lawrence, Martin, Orange, and Owen counties. HHFB supplies more than 3 million pounds of food each year, but it was turning away some of the most nutritious donations due to a lack of refrigerated storage capacity.

“The mass-quantity donations of dairy or produce would often come on a Friday as stores were clearing out their inventory,” explains Julio Alonso, HHFB Executive Director. “We had no way of keeping the food fresh over the weekend until the agencies came to collect it.”

Alonso approached the Community Foundation with the problem and his proposed solution: a refrigerated storage cooler capable of holding a full trailer load of food, which is the quantity in which such donations typically arrive. The new cooler would not only enable HHFB to accept the donations it had been turning away and to seek out more such contributions, but also to restructure its existing, smaller cooler as an open-access resource for partner agencies.

“Previously, when we had fresh foods on hand we’d have to put ‘Do Not Take’ signs on everything that was promised to a specific agency,” Alonso says. “With the larger cooler, we could store everything that was already allocated and keep it locked, and then let agencies come into the other one and find whatever they needed.”

Alonso was asking for a lot – $40,000 to build the new cooler. But he had already built a relationship with the Community Foundation through several earlier grant-funded projects: a capacity study that helped HHFB plan its move to its present, larger location; a racking system that greatly increased the food bank’s dry storage capacity; a gardening program to grow fresh vegetables; and a staff coordinator devoted to managing relationships with the service agencies.

From the Community Foundation’s perspective, the request was right on target with its funding priorities. Not only would the cooler build HHFB’s long-term capacity, but it would also assist the 97 community kitchens, pantries, schools, short-term shelters, and other member agencies that rely on HHFB for their food supplies. As an innovative and transformative solution to a problem, the cooler was precisely the type of project the foundation exists to support.

The cooler is now under construction and will soon be ready for use. Alonso is already lining up contributions, such as a mixed trailer load of fresh vegetables and large donations of apples and corn. The most exciting part of the process, he says, is anticipating how happy the member agencies will be with the new shipments, as they are all eager to access the freshest, healthiest food possible.

“Any time we have had dairy and produce, it has always moved very quickly,” he says. “Our new cooler will not only increase the quantity of food that we distribute, but the quality of it as well. This is exactly what our member agencies need in order to improve nutrition for the families in their service areas.”

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