We are a city in need

The Mitten Lady and other tales from the Freestore Foodbank

Cincinnatus member Kurt Reiber is president & CEO of the Freestore Foodbank, which hosted our October meeting inside the agency’s distribution center at 1250 Tennessee Avenue in Bond Hill.

At that meeting, we learned about a new, creative and comprehensive approach assisting the homeless in Cincinnati, with hopes of transitioning them from shelters to housing. Kurt also told us a bit about the Freestore’s work and tours were available.

In this Q&A with Cincinnatus, he takes us on a deeper tour of the Freestore’s heroic efforts to “feed the line” but also to “shorten the line” – that is, to serve the immediate needs but to also work toward a day where our neighbors won’t have to worry about whether their next meal will have to be sacrificed to a more pressing need, such as medical care or an unpaid utility bill.

Q: Vice Mayor David Mann told Cincinnatus earlier this year that what most surprised him upon returning to politics to campaign in the city was how evident the gap had become between Cincinnati’s haves and have nots. Indeed, income inequality has become an important issue nationally as well. You must see this daily and up close. How real is it?

A: The Cincinnati metropolitan area ranks second in childhood poverty out of 76 major areas in the United States. The Tri-State has roughly 300,000 food insecure individuals – that is, folks who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Approximately 100,000 are children.

Many of our neighbors who seek out the services of the Freestore Foodbank are living paycheck to paycheck. So when an emergency arises – a car breaks down, a child gets sick, utility bills are too high, etc. – they have to spend the money that they would have spent on food on these emergencies. They end up at our food room on Liberty Street or at one of the 275 food pantries that we support.

A little more than 75 percent of the customers that we see have at least one person in the home who is working. But with lower-paying jobs, they are simply not able to make ends meet.

Q: The Freestore seems to address poverty and hunger on two fronts. One, immediate needs -- feeding those who are hungry; but two, teaching job skills in the food and restaurant sector to create a pathway out of poverty. How did this dual mission come to be?

A: In foodbanking, we talk about “feeding the line” and about “shortening the line.” So our first question for anyone who comes to the Freestore for services is, “What brought you here and how can we keep you from having to come back?”

The food that we distribute allows us to begin a conversation with a family in need so that we can work to move them toward self-sufficiency. The wrap-around services that we provide at our Customer Connection Center in Over-the-Rhine, couples with our successful Cincinnati Cooks! program allows us to shorten the line and move families toward self-sufficiency.

Q: Tell us a story. Is there a client or student who stands out, perhaps because of his or her needs and how those were met – or perhaps because how he or she turned his or her life around?

A: The Freestore distributes the fixings for a holiday meal to the families that we serve during the days leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Two years ago, just before Thanksgiving, I met an older man by the name of Ralph, who was the third person in line, waiting for food at 4 a.m. As I chatted with Ralph, he gold me that he had retired from the Army but no longer had steady employment. He said that employers told him he was too old to work for them and that he lacked the skills they were looking for.

I asked Ralph what he enjoyed doing, and said that in the Army he was a cook – and he really enjoyed that but never had any real training.  I told him that we would love to have him be part of our Cincinnati Cooks! program, where he could get the skills needed to land a great job. He said he was 68 years old and nobody would hire him. I told him to let us worry about that.

When I came in to welcome our next Cooks class, there was Ralph, front and center and smiling from ear to ear. To make a long story short, Ralph when through our 10-week program and three days before he graduated, he was offered a job at Talbert House, working in the kitchen and cooking for veterans who were living at Talbert’s halfway house.

Q: Wonderful story. There's always room for one more story. Another?

A: This next story comes under the heading, “There are no small gifts.” Regina Villiars, aka, the Mitten Lady, is a long-time supporter of the Freestore’s work, but not in a way that you would expect.

You see, Regina loves to watch sporting events on TV. I mean she watches every single sporting event from golf to hockey to basketball to the Olympics and every tennis tournament. She doesn’t want to feel like she is wasting her time watching TV, so she knits. About 12 years ago, Regina saw the line of families waiting at our Customer Connection Center for food. She noticed that the mothers of the young children did not have any gloves or mittens to protect their hands while they waited for food – but the children typically were bundled up for the weather.

Regina decided that she would knit mittens for those mothers, who had selflessly given their children the gloves off their hands and, in some cases, even the coats off their backs. During my first year as president and CEO, I received a large box. I had no idea what was in it. When I opened the box, there were 65 pairs of mittens and note from Regina telling me about watching TV and knitting.

Needless to say, that was the very best gift I had ever received during the holidays! We handed out these mittens to 65 deserving mothers and told them about how much Regina cared for them.

The next year – and Olympic year – Re­gina knitted 80 pairs of mittens because she “just loves the Olympics.”

Q: Your kitchen gets creative. You instructors and students are doing creative things with food – not just heating up a can of green beans. What are some examples of this?

A: We have our introductory Cooks! program, which is a 10-week course that teaches the fundamentals of cooking. And we also have an eight-week course called Second Course that teaches fine dining and line cooking. Imagine “Hell’s Kitchen” without the swearing. In our Second Course program, our students learn how to prepare dishes that you would find in the best restaurants anywhere. As part of their studies, these students are able to prepare five-course meals for anyone who would like to have the culinary experience of a lifetime in own Rosenthal Community Kitchen. Each student is responsible for one of the five courses. And then when it prepared and presented, the student will come out speak to our guests and tell them how the dish was prepared. This experience allows our students to gain a level of comfort that is needed at many of the fine restaurants in town.

Q: More and more, you food is being locally sourced. True? Tell us more about that transition.

A: The food that we distribute has changed dramatically over the years. We have gone from a time when 95 percent of the food that we distributed was canned or boxed goods. Today, 60 percent is still canned or boxes but the other 40 percent is perishable items such as fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen meats, cut meats and dairy products.

The nutritional mix also has increased to the point where we are getting more and more nutritious food

Items for the families we serve.

To that end, we began a small, 10-acre community garden that we call the Giving Fields in Melbourne, Kentucky, four years ago. To date, we have harvested over 300,000 pounds of fresh produced that goes directly to 12 food pantries in Northern Kentucky.

Q: What about those backpacks for kids at schools. Why are those so important?

A: Our Power Pack Program allows us to put kid-friendly food items into the hands of the most at-risk children in the Tri-State. There are roughly 145,000 student who are on free or reduced lunches/breakfasts in the 20 counties served by the Freestore Foodbank. The goal of our Power Pack Program is to provide Power Packs to most of the at-risk top 10 percent of these students.

Dure to the cost of the food items put into the Power Packs, we are only able to distribute 4,500 Power Packs each week to over 100 Power Pack sites. To adopt a school, it costs $8,000 for an entire school for a year and each Power Pack cost $5. Most folks feel that our most urgent need for food is during the holiday season, when in fact the summer months when the children are out of school are the times when our resources get stretched the most. That is also what happens on the weekends and holidays. The children are not receiving the meals at school, so the Power Packs help fill that void. The Power Packs are kid-friendly food items that they can prepare themselves so that when they get back to school on Monday, they are ready to learn.

Q: How did you come to this work?

I worked for Key Bank for 29 years in various roles, but while I was at the bank I was always involved with volunteer activities in the community. I have served as the chair of United Way’s Financial Stability Impact Council, as the inaugural president of the board of the Forest Hills Foundation for Education and ask the vice president of the board for Hamilton County Special Olympics. I also served on the board of the Freestore Foodbank for 14 years prior to taking a leave of absences to apply for the position of president and CEO.

Q: OK, imagine a day when you can't eat at the Freestore. Where do you go for a good meal?

A: We do not eat at the Freestore Foodbank. The meal that re prepared by our Cooks! students are delivered to the kinds our aour Kids Café sites. The food that is distributed at our Customer Connect Center or our Distribution Center is delivered to our 275 community partners, who operate pantries and soup kitchens in the 20 counties we serve.

Q: Yes, but do you take out-of-towners to Skyline and get to try a three-way and chili dog?

A: What would a visit to Cincinnati be without a visit to Skyline and Graeter’s? We also try and visit one of the 40 great restaurants who partner with the Freestore for our annual Taste of the NFL that we do in conjunction with our very own Cincinnati Bengals. Now that is some extremely good eating!

Q: You recently joined. Why Cincinnatus, why now?

A: I have always felt the need to give back to our community, and when I heard about Cincinnatus, I thought that I could get an opportunity to work with many individuals who helped to shape our community. And I thought that it was an opportunity that I could not pass up.

Q: How can the members of Cincinnatus help the Freestore and/or help meets the needs in our community that the Freestore is working to address?

A: At the Freestore Foodbank, we talk about “food – connection – hope” and I would recommend any Cincinnatus member to come and volunteer to help us either pack Power Packs, sort canned goods or help harvest fresh produce from the Giving Fields. By volunteering, you make a “connection” to those families and children who don’t know where their next mean is coming from, and provide them with “hope.”



This interview was conducted by email by Cincinnatus Marketing Chair Mark Neikirk in October 2014.