HOW ROUSES IS FILLING FOOD BANKS ONE TRUCKLOAD AT A TIME
For more than a decade, Rouses Markets has partnered with local food banks to provide goods for those in need and, in time of crisis, has doubled its efforts to keep the community fed. Historically, those crises have been things familiar to anyone along the Gulf Coast: hurricanes and floods. Global pandemic is a new one, but the Rouses response has been no less robust.
“As soon as this started happening,” says Michael Westbrook, the deli, cold cuts and sushi director for Rouses Markets, “we jumped on it. We knew there would be economic hardship, and that food banks and local pantries would really get strained.” Westbrook, who is leading the company effort to keep those food pantries stocked, has been at it from the moment COVID-19 presented itself in the community. He has made it his mission to work with food banks in New Orleans, Mobile and Baton Rouge, to find out the needs of each of those communities, and then with store vendors, to find food to keep bellies full.
“We’re trying to do our best to help out our local community,” he says. “The Rouses family really thinks in that manner. They know that we’re going to donate goods, but they ask us to reach out to our vendor partners to see if those companies can support our community locally, also.”
PUTTING FOOD IN THE BANK
Grocery stores buy their products from vendors — companies like Tyson Foods, which sells chicken, and Smithfield Foods, which sells pork. Vendors oftentimes have programs in place for donating to their own local food banks. Sometimes it’s near the facility where their product is made. A vendor in Kansas, for example, will donate to the needy in Kansas. But larger manufacturers have programs where, when disasters strike, retailers like Rouses can reach out and ask for donations to affected communities, wherever they are. Westbrook tapped into those programs and has been working with other Rouses vendors to help them establish relief initiatives of their own.
“We are part of the community, and we want to take care of our community as much as we can,” he says. “Honestly, I just started calling vendors, asking, you know, what kind of program do you have? Do you have any product in excess? Is there any type of donation you can do?” And the response, he says, has been extraordinary. “All the vendors have been very happy to work with us.”
The first donation of the Rouses effort was 14,000 pounds of potatoes. One Rouses partner was overwhelmed with mountains of potatoes and with nowhere to sell it. “As much as I could use it in the deli, I couldn’t use 14,000 pounds of it!” Westbrook got approval from his superiors at the company, purchased the potatoes at a steep discount, and gave them to Louisiana food banks.
The mandatory ban on sit-down dining has devastated the restaurant industry, and that has in turn affected restaurant suppliers as well. Products not normally available for donation, Westbrook discovered, were now in great supply, and he started dialing. “We’ve gotten produce for some local hospitals,” he says. “We’ve gotten those potatoes. Smithfield Foods donated 45,000 pounds of food.”
In mid-April, Tyson Foods made the biggest donation to the Rouses community so far. “Tyson donated 80,000 pounds of fresh chicken,” he says. “We’re up to 138,000 pounds of food donated in the last couple of weeks, and we expect more.”
Part of Westbrook’s job has been coordinating the effort. You can’t just roll up to a pantry with 80,000 pounds of food, after all.
“Probably once a week, I talk to the food banks. We stay in close contact. For something like Tyson’s generous donation, my first concern was, wow, I don’t even know if they can handle 80,000 pounds of fresh chicken. That’s something that only has a certain amount of shelf life.” To get food where it’s needed, Westbrook works with food banks, learning their capacities and capabilities. And when the food banks let him know where they can handle it — they can take a truckload here, they can take another truckload this day — Westbrook makes sure the trucks and supplies are where they are supposed to be, and at the proper times.
“We’re working in conjunction [with them] to make sure, obviously, they can use all the foods that we’re getting them. And that’s been fantastic. As soon as we find a vendor that says yes, then we’re reaching out as quickly as we can to the food bank and saying, okay, here’s the type of product they have. Here’s how much they have. Can you take it in?” When food banks are full, Westbrook calls around to different areas to place it. “We’re going to find somebody to take that product,” he says.
In most cases, the vendors personally deliver their products to the food banks. Companies like Tyson and Smithfield already have highly effective trucking operations and are able to carry their products directly to food banks. For companies who cannot deliver, however, Rouses has its own fleet of trucks to bring the food where it is most needed.
Westbrook is looking at how else Rouses can help smaller vendors donate what they can. “Maybe they don’t have a full truckload of product; maybe they have, you know, full pallets of product. The question is, how do we get that product distributed?” He’s also looking at how to help more, smaller food pantries across the Gulf Coast.
AN ENDURING PARTNERSHIP OF GENEROSITY
Over the years, Rouses has worked most closely with Second Harvest Food Bank in New Orleans, and has serviced the Baton Rouge, Mobile and New Orleans areas. “Second Harvest can take our donations and is set up, also, to give to other food banks and pantries as well — almost like a distribution center for other areas,” Westbrook explains.
The relationship between Rouses and Second Harvest has made this high-stakes project in this critical time a lot easier than it might otherwise have been. “Rouses has been a vital partner with us for over a decade now,” says Emily Slazer, the food sourcing manager for Second Harvest.
“They support us in many ways, year-round, including a very successful and very helpful food drive program that runs in their stores, where customers can purchase a premade bag of shelf-stable pantry items — things like canned tuna, peanut butter, canned soup, canned vegetables — and can place it in a collection barrel right there in the store. So that’s a huge help and a great, consistent source of dry food. They also run a campaign at the register where customers can make a financial contribution that we then use to purchase food. We’ve been fortunate to partner with Rouses, and they support us in many other ways, with special events and things like that.”
She says Rouses also regularly arranges large, special donations during times of disaster.
Second Harvest Food Bank covers a 23-parish service area across South Louisiana, leading the fight against hunger in the state. They work hard to ensure food access and security for the community through education, outreach, advocacy, food distribution and disaster response. “We partner with hundreds of organizations throughout South Louisiana to distribute food to community members who are struggling with hunger,” she says. In Louisiana, one in six people faces hunger — a figure higher than the national average of one in eight. “Right now,” says Slazer, “we are in full disaster response mode, responding to the spread of COVID-19.”
To that end, Rouses Markets, she says, has been “a wonderful partner to us. They’re always there offering support — whatever we need, and when we need it most. They reached out to us mid-March, offering a large donation of products that we were able to use in our kitchen for meal preparation. They’ve arranged several full truckload donations following that, just in the span of about six weeks. They’ve already given us so much support and help, trying to secure the types of donations that we most need.”
She mentions the truckloads of fresh and frozen meats from Tyson and Smithfield, noting that such proteins are always a big need for food pantries. “They’re really wonderful about understanding our work and what our needs are. And they’re such fantastic partners because they really care about how they can do the most good with their donation.”
Slazer says that shoppers who want to help donation efforts should look into the Rouses brown bag program. “It is a really helpful and convenient way to donate — now more than ever.” A basic bag is five dollars, she says, with some stores offering a 10-dollar bag. “It’s very affordable, and it’s food items that we can really use. It’s a really wonderful source of donated dry food.”
The need for food banks and pantries is growing tremendously as people lose their jobs, and with few signs of a recovery in sight. “The support of our community makes all the difference in our ability to help people who don’t have enough to eat,” says Slazer.
Rouses, meanwhile, has given Michael Westbook all the time he needs to take care of the local community. It’s part of his job, now. “That doesn’t happen with every company,” he says. “It’s the great thing about working for a family-run business and being part of the community.”
And he is quick to credit the company’s partner vendors for all they have done for the recovery effort. “We’re doing our part by making the phone calls and trying to arrange it all, working with our local food banks, but in the end, it’s about the vendors stepping up to the plate.”