Food bank harvests volunteers for its new food ‘clean room’

For several years, Harvesters — The Community Food Network couldn’t handle and repackage bulk food in its warehouse because of safety regulations.

But that’s all changed, thanks to Harvesters’ new “clean room,” which the agency showed off on Wednesday. Since early March, Harvesters has repackaged 13,348 pounds of bulk food in the clean room for thousands of regional families.

By allowing Harvesters to repackage bulk products into family-sized bags, the room makes a monumental difference in reducing food waste, communications manager Gene Hallinan said.

The room goes through a deep cleaning after each product, and will produce a cornucopia of options for thousands of families in which 25 percent are children and 20 percent are seniors.

“Right now, we just package bulk foods like rice, cereal, pasta, but we’re looking ahead to get approval from the USDA to repackage meat of all kinds,” Hallinan said.

Missouri child food insecurity in 2015 was almost 19 percent, according to Feeding America, with 258,610 children in “food- insecure” households that often must choose between paying for food or utilities.

Harvesters feeds more than 141,500 people every month, Hallinan said. The food bank serves a 26-county area: 10 counties in Missouri and 16 counties in Kansas.

Harvesters coordinator Sonya Walden thinks the clean room is going to make an enormous difference for the thousands served.

“This room is also very special because it’s a lot cleaner than if we were packaging it in our big warehouse,” Walden said. “It’s a really fun room, it’s a fun project, it’s a lot of team building that goes on ’cause you have to coordinate with the person next to you.”

Volunteering in the clean room Wednesday was Leslie Smith, a peer rehab specialist with New Frontiers, the Truman Medical Center’s day program for those with mental illnesses. She brought six people from the program with her.

“We get products from Harvesters ourselves with our other program, Prime Time, which is a drop-in center. So we’re wanting to also give back to our community, and it helps our people out too because they get to be part of something bigger than themselves,” Smith said.

Lily Oppenheimer: 816-234-4735