Eric Hodel grew up growing food on his family’s diversified, central Illinois farm. Today, as the new CEO of Midwest Food Bank, Hodel is making sure hungry people can access it.
“We’ve seen an increase of people going to food pantries and soup kitchens, … a 10 to 20% increase in demand,” Hodel told FarmWeek. “We have an opportunity and privilege to feed the world with an abundance and excess of food.”
Hodel started 2022 with new duties after serving the private, nonprofit charity as chief operating officer and chief financial officer since 2017. Co-founder and immediate past CEO, David Kieser, remains as president of the board.
Midwest Food Bank started on Kieser’s family farm in 2003. That farm heritage continued to serve Midwest Food Bank as it grew to 10 U.S. locations, including three in Illinois, and a location in Haiti and another in East Africa. The charity maintains its basic model of providing food to now more than 2,000 nonprofit agencies, which distribute to those in need.
Hodel reflected on the benefits of hands-on learning on a corn-soybean-hay farm with an egg-laying business and sheep flock. The family farm near Metamora continues with corn, soybeans, hay, purebred sheep and a seed business.
“I’m extremely thankful I had that (farm background) as an opportunity. What I learned on the farm benefited me,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to have my kids involved and to teach and train the next generation.”
Hands-on learning had applications to hunger needs during the pandemic. Midwest Food Bank “learned with the pandemic that food distribution and disaster relief combined into one,” Hodel said. The charity changed everything from how food was packaged and distributed to organizing and working with volunteers.
One adaptation: A packaged family food box to sustain families and ease distribution. Hodel gave an example of an elderly New York woman who couldn’t leave her high-rise apartment, so a family food box left at her door filled an important need. In 2020, Midwest Food Bank distributed food worth more than $380 million.
In addition, Midwest Food Bank partnered with USDA on its Farmers to Families Food Box program and added meat, milk and fresh ingredients to boxes of shelf-stable foods.
Through that pandemic partnership, the charity learned more about available USDA programs, Hodel said.
The CEO anticipates future family food boxes would be available, depending on the situation.
Meanwhile, Midwest Food Bank’s disaster relief has grown geographically through its state locations and with multiple partners.
“As we grow through the U.S., we grow in ability,” Hodel said.
Pandemic health and safety protocols also changed how Midwest Food Bank worked with its nearly 18,000 volunteers in 2020. Efforts evolved from “mega groups” to smaller, more frequent openings that “give more opportunities to volunteers,” Hodel said.
“There definitely was a need,” he said.
The charity remained open as an essential business, offering people a safe place to go when schools and other institutions closed.
Hodel expects the charity will continue offering multiple opportunities for smaller volunteer groups and will continue using an electronic volunteer sign-up system adopted during the pandemic.
The charity “welcomes calls for new service projects” from Farm Bureau Young Leaders, 4-H clubs, FFA chapters and other groups. For large gatherings, like an annual convention, Midwest Food Bank can offer an on-site service project. Rice, beans and other ingredients for “tender mercy” meals can be brought to a group’s location for an on-site project, according to Hodel.
Midwest Food Bank will continue to alleviate hunger and provide disaster relief with a “terrific team, staff and leaders” at each of its 12 locations and volunteers who “are a tremendous blessing to the organization,” sharing talents with dedication and a willingness to serve, Hodel said.
For more information about Midwest Food Bank, visit midwestfoodbank.org.
This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.