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story.lead_photo.caption The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri's mobile food pantry was open for business Wednesday at St. Martins Catholic Church as Shelley Wright fills a box of food for Mike McMillan. Photo by Mark Wilson / News Tribune.

While focusing on healthier products than in the past, the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri distributed 1.6 million pounds of food in Cole County alone in 2017.

That was an increase of more than 185,000 pounds compared to 2016.

The Food Bank, which covers 32 counties, released its annual report this week. In 2017, while transforming to distribution of "foods to encourage," the organization fed about 100,000 people each month through more than 140 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and partner agencies in the service area, according to the report.

Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks and hunger-relief agencies formerly known as Second Harvest, defines "foods to encourage" as produce, protein, dairy and whole-grain foods that encourage healthy lifestyles.

In the central region, the Food Bank last year distributed 29.8 million pounds of food. Sixty-one percent of the food it provided was considered "foods to encourage."

Janece Heavin, communications coordinator for the Food Bank, said despite the growth in volume of food it distributed, the organization put more emphasis on quality foods over quantity under the leadership of Executive Director Lindsay Lopez.

Since the Food Bank began 36 years ago, the model had revolved around collecting and distributing nonperishable foods, as they would have a longer shelf life, Heavin said.

In recent years, though, the organization realized much of the nonperishable food was processed and contained high levels of sodium. Feeding America has emphasized improving the quality and freshness of food, Heavin said.

"If you think about it, distributing fresh food is really complicated," she said. "Fresh produce and dairy, it requires refrigeration. It requires efficiency."

It required leaders to get more people to donate money to the organization. Its affiliation with Feeding America gave the Food Bank the ability to buy bulk foods at greatly reduced costs. Every $10 donation secures $210 in healthy grocery options, according to a news release.

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It required the organization to go after grants to help it transform.

To aid in distribution of healthier foods, the Food Bank obtained a grant that helped by improving shelving in cold storage units, Heavin said.

Following that, it required partners store the healthier food.

The organization obtained another grant that allowed it to buy coolers and loan them to partners that didn't have refrigeration.

A third grant obtained last year paid for improvements to refrigeration and lighting in its Columbia warehouse and already has saved the Food Bank approximately $9,000.

In addition to providing food for pantries, kitchens and shelters, the Food Bank distributes Buddy Packs. The packs provide food over weekends and holidays to children who receive free or reduced-price meals at schools, according to the annual report. A gift of $180 allows the Food Bank to provide meals to a student on weekends and holidays for an entire school year.

The organization also gives boxes of ready-to-eat foods to veterans living at or below the poverty line. The VIP Veteran Pack Program distributes self-heating meals, canned foods, peanut butter and some personal care items.

The Food Bank began a partnership with the United Way of Central Missouri last year to deliver food at various locations around Cole County with a new mobile food pantry.

In all, the Food Bank distributed more than 28.8 million meals valued at more than $51 million in 2017.

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