Frank Sheppard knows intimately what it takes to feed a lot of mouths. After all, he was the "baby" boy in a family with seven other siblings, all of them older sisters.
"When I tell people that, the response from the men is bless your heart. The response from the women is you were spoiled rotten," said Sheppard with a laugh. "It's probably a little bit of both. They were great and very supportive and very helpful."
That upbringing served him well for a career that would bring him to Columbus to work in management at the Litho-Krome Co. It was a 23-year span that eventually led him to the job as executive director of Feeding the Valley, a Columbus-based food bank that is now looking to grow so it may better help the hungry in Columbus and 13 area counties. "My parents raised eight kids on my father's one salary," said Sheppard, 49, a resident of the Upatoi area. "They learned to manage money very well, and it didn't involve ordering four or five pizzas at a time. We didn't do that. There was a lot of cooking homemade meals and eating leftovers and learning how to stretch your food dollar quite a bit."
It's that simple sense that Sheppard, who had served on Feeding the Valley's board of directors nearly a decade, brought to the table as he took charge of the nonprofit organization in January.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited his 24,000-square-foot Columbus distribution facility on Coca-Cola Boulevard recently to talk not only about his job, but the steady need for getting food in the stomachs of people -- adults and children -- who simply cannot afford it.
How did you become director of Feeding the Valley?
I had a 23-year career in finance and management with Litho-Krome Co. here in Columbus. At the end of (2013), economic factors came into play and workforce reductions were looking to impact my position. As that was happening, the board of directors of the food bank approached me about the executive director's position. It was obviously a great opportunity for me and very good timing as well.
Did your corporate skills transfer easily to this?
Very much so. I found that the years I spent in manufacturing, where my time was spent with finance, with management responsibilities, logistics, procurement, employee health and safety, all of those have really helped me in this job, especially running a multi-site facility as we are now starting to do.
Has there been any learning curve at all?
Absolutely. I served as an officer on the board for nine years, so I knew about food banking, but I didn't realize until I stepped into the lead role how much there is to learn. All of our programs have federal and state regulations. We receive (U.S. Department of Agriculture) commodities. We receive state communities. You have to abide by rules and regulations in those programs. All programs have restrictions on who can receive them. They might be income based. They might be programs where you have children under 18 in your house. So you have to be very particular, and you're very accountable for the food that you distribute and make sure that you distribute to people who qualify for those programs.
What is your job like day to day?
In the six months I've been on the job, I really have spent more of it establishing our capital campaign. So I spend a lot of time out in the community with corporate groups and with foundation partners talking to them, and to raise awareness of the Food Bank, and to fund-raise for our capital campaign and our daily needs. I want to get into spending more time in the day-to-day operations in learning more of the details of all that goes on.
Is this an emotional job for you in a sense?
It is. After years in the corporate world where the bottom line is turning the dollar, to go into a business where you're feeding hungry people, it feels good at the end of the day knowing that you've done something to better your community. We know how valuable our service is. The fact that a large portion of who we help are children, it does make you feel better that you're doing something to help the next generation come along and help them have a chance to be successful.
Explain Feeding the Valley's mission.
We're one of seven regional food banks in the state of Georgia. We cover 14 counties. We go as far north as LaGrange and Troup County, as far east as Schley, as far south as Clay, and then we have Russell County in Alabama as well. In that (entire) area, we now distribute about 7 million pounds of food annually.
Is that an all-time high?
It is. We've experienced exponential growth. Five business years ago, we distributed 1.7 million pounds. This year we are at 6.9 million pounds. So that's about 400 percent growth in five years.
What is causing that?
The shame of it all is there is the need. Poverty numbers continue to increase. They say that one out of six adults in the U.S. is in poverty. One out of five kids lives in poverty. And those numbers hold true here. We have about 430,000 people in our coverage area; 84,000 of those people live below the poverty line and are what's called 'food insecure.' That's the term we use in the business. That means through the resources they have on a day-to-day basis, they do not have enough to cover a regular healthy diet. They are going to go hungry at some point.
Do you think the public would find those numbers surprising?
I think a little surprising to know, yes, that basically one out of five are going hungry. If you're standing there and look two to the left of you and two to the right of you, you've got somebody that does not know where their next meal is going to come from in the course of the next day or so.
Tell me about your Columbus location.
We've got 24,000 square feet here. We've been in this building since 1992. We've been in operation since 1983. We've got 25 total staff, 15 full-time, and we have six delivery vehicles that we use on a regular basis and sometimes have to lease others just based on the need. We have an inventory of about 1 million pounds of food on any given day in this warehouse and about another 800,000 pounds up in LaGrange.
You have different programs?
We run three major programs. The first is what we call the Kids Cafe. We serve about 800 meals per day during the school year to kids in the Columbus and Phenix City area. Some of them are in the public housing facilities, some are at church facilities, places of that sort. The meals are all made right here in our kitchen and distributed by our trucks to feed kids a hot afternoon meal. In the summertime, that number goes up to 1,500 meals a day, because kids who qualify for free or reduced school breakfast and lunch don't have that at their disposal during the summer. So we move the meal up to about a noontime meal to get them something to carry them over.
What types of meals do you serve them?
The typical kid-friendly hot meals. Most days of the week it will be ravioli, spaghetti, things of that sort. They're all taken out in heating units in trucks and distributed to the sites, and they have warmers there to keep them warm while they are serving.
Where are the distribution sites?
They are several of the public housing facilities, Wilson Homes, Booker T. Washington Homes, Canty Homes. And then there are a number of other places throughout the area that help us through the use of volunteers -- Mother Mary Mission in Phenix City, Open Door (Community House) has a site, and there are a number of other places that feed as well. It's five days a week.
So the kids are on their own during weekends?
To an extent. We also have a backpack buddy program during the school year. We partner with local agencies to determine the children that are most in need, and we literally fill a backpack full of food and it's given to the child -- with kid-friendly foods -- to take home for the weekend to be able to eat on. It's very discreet and no one is aware of that. They go to a particular place at their school. They pick up the backpack and take it home. They bring the empty one back and we repeat the same process for other weekends.
What's in backpack?
A lot of kid-friendly foods that are pop-tops. You try to stick with juices, fruits and some snack items, things that they can get to. If it's all foods that need can openers and things of that sort, then obviously the adults of the house might spend more time eating it than the kids do.
What is the reception from the kids when receiving the food?
I've talked to a number of people who have talked to kids who are in poverty, and you ask: What do you want? You expect to hear a bicycle or this and that. But more often than not, they say food. They say 'I go hungry.' They want food to be able to sleep at night, to be able to stay awake during the school day, to be able to learn. Studies show that kids in poverty are at a 20 percent disadvantage in their regular socio-economic growth, in their educational abilities. They're behind to begin with. So that's one of our objectives, to eliminate that from happening.
They can't focus if their stomachs are growling and uncomfortable?
Exactly. Their concentration level is not there. They are more likely to fall asleep. They're more likely to be out sick. There are a number of things that keep them from being able to function and excel in the academic environment.
Your other programs?
Mobile Pantry is the second one. We have a lot of people in our service area. The southern counties are rural areas. Stewart County is the poorest county in the state ... A lot of people in the rural areas don't have the ability to get to us. They don't have the resources, they don't have cars, they don't gas to put the cars.
So with our Mobile Pantry, w e have volunteers pack 35- to 50-pound boxes of food, shelf-stable items. We add some produce and even some snack items in there when they're available. We pack those boxes full on our trucks and deliver them to sites in our counties. We've partnered with the Enrichment Services people in each of the counties to set up a site to sign the people up. We give them a schedule of when we're going to be in the area and then we deliver food. We deliver 7,000 boxes of food each month to people, not only in the rural areas, but also areas in Columbus and Phenix City. We deliver most places one or two times a month
What types of items do they receive?
A lot of shelf-stable items, macaroni and cheeses, typical USDA commodities like canned corn and beans. But we do get a lot of donations from our local food donors. Those might be produce items.
You wonder what happens to goods that expire or are near expiration at the supermarket?
Our food donations are a big part of our business. Our major food donors, such as Walmart, Publix, Winn-Dixie, and others like Kroger, they donate 3.2 million pounds of food to us every year. That's almost half of what we're distributing.
We pick up at some of those places on a daily basis, some every other day. We have people on call. If they call us and say, 'I've got six pallets of watermelons, come and get them,' we get a truck right over there.
And we have the same network with our partner agencies here, and that is to say with produce items that have a very short shelf life, if we have tomatoes or bananas and we know they aren't going to make it for the weekend, then we will call up those agencies and say, come and get them, they're free ... The one thing we don't want to do is put food in the dumpster.
Your third program?
That is the food distribution. We have 230 partner agencies, some of which are churches, outreach programs, and other United Way agencies that have soup kitchens and food pantries where they want to help their neighbors in need. They will come shop with us, purchase the food from us, and then distribute it to the hungry in their area.
They come here?
Yes. It's literally like a Sam's Club out there, and with that food we charge 19 cents a pound. That's all we charge for that food. To give you a relative equation, if you bought a thousand pounds of our food in a typical Sam's or Costco, it would cost you $1,500. Here it costs you $190. So that's a large part of our business, is people coming in and purchasing that food.
You take the money from that and turn around and buy more food?
Yes, it's used to run our day-to-day operations. That's the one program where we really derive income. All of the Kids Cafe meals, that's all free of charge. All of the Mobile Pantry runs with boxes of food, that's all done free of charge.
We have 84,000 people in need in our area. By our estimates, we're serving 38,000 of those people. So there's still a huge opportunity for us to grow to be able to meet the needs of the hungry in our area.
The ones you aren't serving, why is that? They just don't know about your services?
They don't know. It's capacity. They won't come for help, whatever the case may be. When did you open the LaGrange location and how does it fit in the big picture?
What we're embarking on is a regional distribution model. Whereas we used to distribute all food out of our facility right here, we realized it would be much more efficient and a much better way to serve the areas if we had a spot in the very north end of our coverage area and another one in the south end of our coverage area.
So the first step in expanding is to open the LaGrange facility, which we did on March 26 of this year. It is a 24,000-square-foot facility. It's as big as the one we have here. So there's plenty of room to grow for some time. It's been very well received by Troup County and the surrounding counties that we serve. It's gotten off to a great start, so we're really pleased with that.
And we're talking to people down in the Randolph County area about getting another storefront down there; just a smaller storefront because we don't have a lot of agencies there. But we do have a lot of people that we serve Mobile Pantry boxes to. If we can get a small storefront down there where we can store food and open up for business even one day a week, then we can triple or quadruple the amount of food we're distributing in that area.
You've got your hands full?
Yes. Part of the reason for the growth that we (anticipate) in the regional distribution expansion is because we do need to spend more time having a facility in an area and serving those people as opposed to running trucks up and down the road.
And it's helpful to our agencies. Our partner agencies from LaGrange were having to drive 40 miles down here to buy food and 40 miles back up there. We're trying to be conscious of their budgets ... Now they only have to travel maybe three or four miles instead of 80 miles round trip. With trucks and the cost of fuel, there's a lot to that.
What's your overall budget?
Our overall budget is about $1.2 million annually. We do receive funding from United Way. We do rely heavily on the food donations. Basically half of the food that we distribute comes from donated product from not only our major food donors, but food drives as well. We have churches, we have things like a letter carriers food drive. We have a number of things that really help us in many ways to procure food ... And we rely on donations, we do direct marketing, a direct mail program to solicit donations.
We're part of the Feeding America network of food banks in the United States. There's 202 food banks and they secure major contracts with the likes of Walmart and other major foundations, which help us with capital needs. We've been very fortunate.
There also are nationally competitive grants that we have received in the last couple of years. In 2012, we received a Walmart grant for $125,000 for a 26-foot refrigerated truck. The next week we got another $125,000 grant from the Kraft Foundation for another truck. So there's a quarter of a million dollars in capital that was given to us.
Walmart has been extremely generous in their donations. We have another one for $115,000 for two Sprinter vans which transport and distribute those Kids Cafe meals on a daily basis. Without that help, we would have trouble sustaining our operations. So we're very grateful.
You also want to expand your site in Columbus?
The third part of our distribution or plans for expansion is to buy and retrofit a bigger facility here in Columbus. We are landlocked here (on Coca-Cola Boulevard) and packed to the gills, and we need a facility that will help us meet the needs of the community better.
We're in the middle of a capital campaign. Our goal is to raise $4.7 million, and we have raised $2 million to date. So we are looking for the remaining funds to buy and to retrofit a facility in this area that will help us to grow for many years ... We're looking for a 75,000- to 90,000-square-foot building that has all the logistics we need to store more food, turn more food and distribute more food.
So you won't be surprised, with that expansion, if you top 10,000 pounds of food distributed each year?
No, the 10-year plan is to get to 11.2 million pounds of food. That's our objective. The 11.2 million pounds, we hope would serve the 84,000 people in need
What are the sources you're hoping will bring in funds?
We have applied to a number of large foundations, and those foundations in this area include the Bradley-Turner Foundation. Aflac has been generous in donating to us. We applied to a number of major foundations in Atlanta and our grant writer even looks for national foundations that can assist us in other ways.
There are a number that are particular to food banks, so we certainly go to them first and see how they can help us out.
The goal is by this time next year that we will wrap it up.
Name: Frank Sheppard
Hometown: Beaumont, Texas
Current residence: Upatoi, Ga.
Education: 1983 graduate of Seminole High School in Seminole, Fla.; earned a bachelor's degree in accounting from Columbus State University in 1990.
Previous jobs: EHS/Procurement manager with Litho-Krome Co. in Columbus and in the Midland area from 1990-2013.
Family: Wife Peggy Staggs Sheppard, and children Matt Roden of Upatoi, and Spc. Taylor Anne Roden at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Leisure time: He's an avid golfer (with a 4 handicap), and enjoys traveling, attending concerts, and caring for his three dogs and two cats.
Of note: He's the "baby" of his family, being the last of eight children with seven older sisters. His immediate family has 39 members.