carlton adams, chief operating officer of operation food search​ photo by virginia harold

What I Do: Carlton Adams, chief operating officer of Operation Food Search​

Carlton Adams is chief operating officer of Operation Food Search (OFS), a food banking organization that helps feed families and individuals struggling with food insecurity. OFS also operates programs directed at addressing root causes of food insecurity by partnering with hospitals and advocating for Medicare and other policy reforms. “The real thing about food insecurity is you are probably in the day-to-day looking right into the eyes of it, and you have no idea,” Adams explained. Here, he sheds light on OFS’ multi-pronged approach to hunger and why food banking alone will not solve the U.S.’ struggle to feed its population.

“When I got [to OFS], I wasn’t fully appreciative of the difference between a food bank and a food pantry. So you don’t come to Operation Food Search and, for the most part, we don’t come to you and feed you. We [supply] over 170 agencies in Missouri and Illinois that actually feed our neighbors that are struggling with food insecurity.”

“We support food distribution through several partners like the Urban League as an example, our retail partners, like our largest donor, Schnucks, [and] also large donors like Dierbergs, just to name a couple that we work very closely with, where we’re bringing in truckloads of food and sometimes other donated items that we’ll distribute to our pantries.”

“Most of our food comes to us through retail partners. We’ll recover food from restaurants at times – from our stadiums here in St. Louis as well. Generally speaking, that food would be picked up by our member agencies.”

“We’re bringing in product every day, and we distribute product to our agencies and to others every day as well. We’re talking about full tractor-trailer loads of meat, frozen foods […]”

“We also have several food distribution programs where we work with partners to provide really shelf-stable product that is primarily focused on feeding not just families but kids in particular. So Operation Backpack, where a backpack’s worth of meals are delivered for kids to take home on the weekends in the school year.”

“We have a summer meals program in partnership with library systems where we’ll provide meals during the summer. Many families, and certainly kids, are fed during the school year because they go to school, and that’s where they get at least one meal every day. So if you’re struggling with food insecurity, it’s a significant lifeline.”

“One of the things also under my umbrella is … we try to facilitate more farm-to-table opportunity. So we have a gleaning program, which means … we can come and bring some volunteers or some staff and harvest fresh produce where it’s appropriate, based on what the farmers made available to us.”

“Distributing food is critical, but we recognize – and I would say that the food-banking community recognizes – that’s not enough. Because if you don’t have a school-age child, the programs that I just mentioned don’t reach you. And if you can’t get to a [food] pantry or don’t know how to do that, then that program, our largest by-volume program, doesn’t reach you either.”

“We are partnering with healthcare organizations, like Christian Hospital, Mercy, to deal with food as medicine. So, how can we provide nutritious meal kits that will help with diabetes, as an example, or will help with having a safe and healthy pregnancy and then transitioning into parenthood.”

“[In the U.S.,] we throw more food away than we would need to feed everybody that’s food insecure – it’s something like 28 million people. We’ve got enough food for them. That is not the problem.”

“The proverb ‘if you feed someone [a] fish, you feed him for a day, if you teach him to fish, …’ – that sounds good, but people have to have access. When you’re making a trade-off between keeping a roof over the family’s head and having a meal every day? That’s food insecurity.”

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