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Foods Resource Bank

Local volunteers are growing solutions to help solve world hunger

On a beautiful autumn day last October, a harvest celebration at a Climax farm featured food, music, a petting zoo and rides on combines that were harvesting the cornfield. The people gathered were participants in a “growing project” of the Foods Resource Bank and were celebrating not just the bounty of the corn crop, but also the ability to assist hungry people around the world through the monetary proceeds from their harvest.

The Foods Resource Bank is a nondenominational organization that involves U.S. churches and farmers in fighting hunger and poverty worldwide. With a slogan of “Growing Lasting Solutions to Hunger,” the FRB does not ship food overseas; instead, it raises funds to send to communities in more than 30 developing countries to help these communities become self-supporting in terms of their food supply.

“Our product is successful food-security programming,” says Norm Braksick of Portage, a full-time volunteer for the FRB. This programming enables families to produce enough food to feed themselves, plus have extra to sell to earn money for necessities and to send all their children to school.

“Our niche is basically to help small farmers, often women and children, because the men go to town to try to earn income, and it’s the women and children that are left to raise the family,” Braksick says.

Braksick worked for 30 years in the animal-health industry as an employee of the former Upjohn Co. He was vice president of that Portage-based company’s North American Animal Health Operations and was president of Asgrow Seed. He retired in 1997 and helped form the Foods Resource Bank in 1998. He now assists in establishing new growing projects in Michigan and Indiana, working with agricultural suppliers to get donations of seed and other goods.

The FRB runs food-security programs in countries across the globe, including in Africa, India, Central America and Asia, through partnerships with 15 humanitarian organizations, including Catholic Relief Services, World Renew, Church World Service and the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

These partner organizations identify communities in need that have indigenous leaders who are willing to participate. Through a process of “appreciative inquiry,” FRB partners spend six to 12 months in those communities building trust and evaluating their resources and needs. “You have to get the local government convinced that you are there to help their people, not take from their people,” Braksick says.

Assistance projects can involve training, improving access to clean water, providing tools or improved seeds and livestock breeds or introducing new vegetable crops that are suitable to the environment. Each project is overseen by trained people who live in the community.

“We’ve done over 125 of these programs now, and we’ve only had four that we’ve had to quit along the way,” Braksick says. He attributes the remarkable success rate of FRB projects to the care with which FRB partners select communities to work with and the organization’s willingness to take its time with each project.

“We like to commit for four to six years to make sure it’s sustainable, so that when we leave they’re well on their way to producing their own food,” Braksick says. “That’s what it’s all about, and that basically starts with the agriculture growing projects here in the United States.”

A community growing project in the U.S. typically involves a group of people getting together to farm a common plot of land, pooling in-kind and cash donations to support the production of a commodity — such as grain, soybeans or livestock — to be sold at market. Once the crop is harvested and sold, the proceeds are donated to the Foods Resource Bank for use in the food aid and development programs carried out by its members overseas.

“The main thing we do is multiply everybody’s gift,” Braksick says. Whereas a dollar donated to charity typically nets only 60 to 70 cents’ worth of programming after overhead, with FRB growing projects, “if we get a dollar in contribution in cash in the spring, by and large by fall that will become $3 to $4 for overseas programming because of all the donations that are inherent in the model.

“We get the annual use of land from a lot of generous people,” Braksick continues, including farmers, private landowners, companies with buffer land around manufacturing plants, and builders with properties awaiting future development. Farmers donate labor and the use of equipment, and a variety of businesses donate seed, herbicides and pesticides if needed, fuel, and transportation of crops to market.

Then “we challenge people at a city church to raise $200 an acre to cover the costs we don’t get donated,” Braksick says. The aim is that when the crop is sold in the fall, “all of the money that comes out of that field can go for programming overseas.”

There are more than 200 FRB growing projects around the country, and last year the FRB funded $3.3 million in overseas programming, amounting to $8 per person served in 62 overseas projects.

“We have our largest project in the United States actually located right here in the Kalamazoo area,” Braksick says. “And it’s a partnership between a ‘city church,’ Portage United Church of Christ, and five rural churches: Climax United Methodist, Newton United Methodist, Pine Grove Mennonite, Scotts United Methodist and Waukeshma Community Church.” This Kalamazoo County-Calhoun County growing project farms a total of 233 acres and over the past 11 years has contributed more than $1.2 million to FRB food-security programs.

Braksick, who is a member of Portage United Church of Christ, says that although the FRB’s mission is “a Christian response to world hunger,” its participants are not evangelists. “We lead unconditionally with food production, helping people to grow their own food,” he says. “And if that’s all that happens, that’s what we’re about.”

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Kit Almy

Kit’s background in arts and nature has allowed her to explore a variety of topics for Encore over the years. This month she introduces readers to MRC Artworks, a classroom and gallery in downtown Kalamazoo that helps disabled people gain self-worth by creating art. In addition to freelancing, Kit works for the Kalamazoo Public Library and volunteers at the Kalamazoo Nature Center’s DeLano Homestead, teaching pioneer programs.

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