Full service: Food Bank goes beyond hunger with its new community resource Center

The Greater Cleveland Food Bank (GCFB) gathered stakeholders, government officials and civic leaders in Collinwood on Wednesday, Nov. 1 to inaugurate its new Community Resource Center, 15500 S. Waterloo Road, which now offers social services in addition to food distribution.

Tiffany Scruggs, GCFB executive director and vice president of community access, and Kristin Warzocha, the organization’s president and CEO, shared the inner workings of the space and discussed the impact the new center will have on the Greater Cleveland Area when they lead FreshWater Cleveland on a hardhat preview at the end of October.

The Food Bank opened its Partner Distribution Hub last November at 13815 Coit Road in the first phase of its three-phase $80 million expansion project to create food stability in Northeast Ohio, meet increased demand, and extend community services. Construction began on the second phase—the Community Resource Center—later in November 2022 and was completed right on time. Phase three, scheduled to begin in 2024 and last through 2026, will be the creation of additional food resource centers on the south and west sides of Northeast Ohio.

Greater Cleveland Food Bank's new resource centerGreater Cleveland Food Bank's new resource centerWe just ended our most recent fiscal year on September 30—and when I say ‘we,’ I’m referring to the Food Bank and our 1,000 program partners in six counties—and provided food and support to 401,000 unduplicated people in the previous twelve months,” says Warzocha. “Almost one in four people in our service area. This is a new record that’s even higher than it was during the COVID-19 pandemic and 50,000 more people than were served in the previous year. The rising costs of housing, fuel, and food has resulted in an increase of more than 90,000 first-time recipients this year. “

Warzocha says GCFB aims to offer a holistic spectrum of services to close the loopholes that contribute to systematic food insecurity. “Ultimately what we want is fewer people that need emergency food,” she explains.

The Community Resource Center was conceptualized using a “More Than Food framework” and concepts gleaned from the Food Bank’s distribution partners across the six-county area, other nonprofits, and food banks nationwide.

In addition to the healthy choice food market, neighbors will find a welcoming space in both design and demeanor that offers a one-stop-shop for social services, individually addressing the unique set of circumstances contributing to their food insecurity.

“It's not always a great experience [because] many times people don’t feel good about having to ask for help, and so we want this to be a positive experience,” says Warzocha. “We want people to understand that this is what we’re all here for.”

A neighborly approach

The Food Bank’s “Choice model” ensures people can take what they want and need. “Our neighbors know what their health limitations are and what their kids will really eat,” explains Warzocha. “And we all have preferences. This will give folks the dignity and the option to make choices for their family and bring home things they can really use and enjoy.”

Additionally, visitors to the Food Bank are referred to as “neighbors,” not “clients.” And, foregoing the traditional food pantry stigma, the GCFB looks and feels like a typical grocer— flanked with freezer cases and coolers filled with whole foods. Shelves are stocked with nonperishables and personal care products. Affirmations and positive quotes are integrated into the décor.

Greater Cleveland Food Bank's new resource centerGreater Cleveland Food Bank's new resource centerUpon arrival, neighbors will be greeted at a welcome desk. A language board is available for people who don’t speak English, allowing them to point to their language of origin to receive the assistance of an interpreter.

Visitors receive a grocery cart to fill and can be paired with a Food Bank staff member to serve as a navigator, guiding them through the shopping experience.

Scruggs explained this pairing as an opportunity to address social isolation and identify needs. “We’ll have a conversation with our neighbors to build trust and a relationship and also talk about reading labels and thinking about healthy items,” she says.

GCFB partners with local chefs to demonstrate how to use ingredients people may not be familiar with. A teaching kitchen was designed with consideration to the equipment that a visitor is likely to own in their homes—such as hot plates, microwaves, and griddles.

Jack Cleveland Casino donated pots, pans, can openers, and other kitchen essentials to the teaching kitchen

Meeting the needs

Sixteen organizations that address the main drivers of food insecurity— employment, housing, and healthcare—will offer their services onsite. “We reached out to more than 16,000 people over a two-year period,” Scruggs says, “listening to our community about how we should enhance and evolve our services and approach, focusing on addressing root causes of hunger.”

Warzocha shared how the site’s design was conceptualized with consideration to creating the right spaces for all the partner participants.

“Though most [nonprofit partners] won’t be headquartered here, many will have one or two staff members onsite,” she assures. “We consulted them to determine what kind of space would be most effective. For example, when we greet someone in the lobby for food and find out they are also struggling with a housing issue, we can say, ‘Hold on, let us walk you back, we have a representative from [CHN Housing Partners] here who can help you with that.’”

Shoes and Clothes for Kids is moving its entire operations to the centerShoes and Clothes for Kids is moving its entire operations to the centerShoes and Clothes for Kids is moving its entire operations to the center and will have a large retail space for neighbors to select new items—free of charge. The organization will have access to loading docks and warehouse storage to amplify its ability to receive donations and maintain backstock.

The Diaper Bank of Greater Cleveland will also move its operations to the resource center. “Babies go through six to 12 diapers per day, and a lot of behavioral challenges can arise when those on lower incomes are unable to afford to meet that demand and are forced to make a limited allotment of diapers stretch,” Scruggs says.

Evidence of increased operating efficiency and capacity was palpable behind the scenes. “With access to loading docks we’ve already been able to accept a donation of 100,000 feminine care products, where in the past, donations had to be refused at times due to lack of storage space,” Scruggs brags. “Warehouse volunteers will now be able to package diapers and feminine care products to amplify distribution.”

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services will eventually join the center’s efforts to integrate in-person public benefits access for SNAP, Medicaid, cash assistance, and childcare. “We’ll have two full-time caseworkers here five days a week who will not only be able to accept applications but also approve the benefits,” Warzocha says.

Five employment partners will connect people with funding for college, a training program, or higher-paying jobs that can help move an individual into a position where they don’t need emergency food or won’t need it as often, GCFB officials say.

Through an on-site partnership with Cuyahoga Community College, a computer lab offering core activities and open lab hours for access to the Internet will be available and will also function as a classroom.

“Whether it’s balancing your budget, homeownership, or a class offered by Tri-C, we will offer a wide variety of programs and listen to our neighbors to inform other ways that space will be used,” says Scruggs.

Onsite representatives from United Way 211 have access to every nonprofit in Northeast Ohio, so if there’s something that can’t be done to help in the moment, there’s still a way to connect the person with help.

A family thing

An extension of the lobby was intentionally dynamically designed to appeal to the Food Bank’s youngest neighbors.

“We didn’t want it to feel like a doctor’s office,” Warzocha explains. “We wanted it to be a comfortable space to come in and sit with the whole family. A lot of times an entire family will walk in, so we wanted to have little tables and multipurpose rooms where the whole family can sit together while someone does homework.”  

Family Connections will be onsite offering education and resources for young children preparing for kindergartenFamily Connections will be onsite offering education and resources for young children preparing for kindergartenFamily Connections, a local nonprofit organization focused on literacy will be onsite offering education and expert resources for families with young children preparing for kindergarten.

Three large meeting rooms adjacent to the lobby are strategically placed so a family with multiple needs can meet with several partners simultaneously—streamlining their assistance and mitigating undue stress caused by retelling their story repeatedly.

The Resource Center is in an area that is considered a medically underserved neighborhood, so MetroHealth will operate a federally qualified healthcare clinic inside of the center, but with its own waiting room, that will serve the entire neighborhood, regardless of a person’s ability to pay or need for food. MetroHealth will screen every patient for social determinants of health, including food insecurity.  

Going above and beyond

Initially, GCFB anticipated serving 30,000 neighbors in the center’s first year, but now officials believe that estimate is conservative, as programs in Euclid and Downtown Cleveland are now being phased out.

The GCFB’s Euclid Neighborhood Pantry, where 1,000 unduplicated households were served each week, closed at the end of October. Dec. 21 will mark the final mass drive-through distribution at the Muni Lot, where upwards of 2,600 households are served twice monthly.

Warzocha says the amenities and services at the new Community Resource Center should more than fill the void.

“With evening hours two days a week and every other Saturday, someone who previously got support in the Muni Lot just twice a month will now be able to choose between six days a week at a time that works for their schedule,” Warzocha explains. “Nationally, more than 50% of recipients at food pantries are part of a working family. It can be hard on someone who is working, in many cases full-time, to get food at a place that is operating during traditional social service hours.

Warzocha predicts an influx of individuals who have previously been unable to access help because the operating hours didn’t fit their schedules.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as a commitment to the Collinwood community, we all considered when addressing staffing demands. Many employees live in the neighborhood and have lived experience with hunger and poverty, says Scruggs, adding that they take a grassroots approach to listing job opportunities—listing jobs in free publications like the Collinwood Observer and Euclid Observer.

Tricia Chaves
Tricia Chaves

About the Author: Tricia Chaves

Tricia Chaves is a 'hair raising reporter' who splits her time between writing and and her Thousand Locks Charity project to increase awareness about hair donation among stylists and improve the availability of free wigs for women and kids with cancer. A former style and beauty editor, these days she's more likely to be wearing her toddler on her back than makeup on her face. You can follow the adventures of her foodie family at Planes, Trains and All of Our Meals.