Statesboro Food Bank supporters, including city and Bulloch County officials, broke ground Tuesday morning for a $2 million, 12,000-square-foot facility envisioned to include not just a food pantry but classrooms for lessons on healthy eating and a dining hall where hot meals will be served to the hungry.
“We’re planning to provide breakfast, lunch and hopefully, with the assistance of Ogeechee Tech and Georgia Southern, supper,” said Sheila Stewart-Leach, executive director of The Food Bank Inc., the local charitable nonprofit. “We will also have two classrooms in the new building. … We will teach not only how to cook the items that are in the food boxes for people who want to learn, but we’ll also be doing classes in nutrition, on container gardening. …”
The classrooms could also be “spillover space” if the dining hall, planned to seat 135 people, fills to capacity. She and members of the Food Bank Inc.’s volunteer board hope to use a courtyard for container gardening and even to landscape the grounds with “edibles” such as fig and pear trees.
Another feature will be a drive-thru window for food pantry distributions to people who are already signed up and have transportation.
The Food Bank Inc. still needs to raise about $800,000 to finish paying for the construction and equipment, Stewart-Leach said. Then, she added, the charity’s annual operating budget will likely increase from the previous $65,000 to $75,000 range to somewhere in the range of $250,000 to $300,000.
“So I hope as you are visiting with your friends and family and within your businesses that you not only consider helping with the building but also think about the ongoing need to feed the people that we need to feed,” she told the crowd under and around the tent at the project site.
So far it’s a vacant, grassed lot with some trees in the triangle bounded by Northside Drive West, Miller Street and West Parrish Street.
Meanwhile, the Food Bank itself, still in the old Julia P. Bryant School on Donnie Simmons Way, only operates a food pantry, from which people in need obtain boxes of groceries for home preparation. In past years the organization shared space with Rebecca’s Café, an all-volunteer effort that currently serves a free lunch on Wednesdays at First Presbyterian Church. Stewart-Leach envisions expanding prepared meal service, potentially to every day of the week, in partnership with Rebecca’s Café, and suggests the university and college food services might contribute leftover items.
$1M from ARPA
The first half of the nearly $2 million land acquisition and construction budget has been supplied by the Bulloch County and Statesboro city governments from pandemic-era federal recovery funds. From Statesboro’s share of American Rescue Plan Act funding, the mayor and council dedicated $500,000 for the project, and likewise, the Bulloch County commissioners committed $500,000 from the county’s ARPA funds, for a total of $1 million government cash toward the congressionally authorized purpose of addressing “food insecurity.”
“These funds have laid the foundation for the Food Bank's ambitious new building project,” Stewart-Leach said in media release last week. “We were able to acquire a prime, accessible location on West Northside Drive with roughly $760,000 remaining in the fund for the development and construction of the new facility.”
Acting on behalf of Food Bank Inc., the city purchased the 3.75-acre site, for $240,000 one year ago.
Besides the remaining $760,000 from ARPA money, Statesboro’s Food Bank has raised about $145,000 in “generous contributions from individuals, businesses, foundations, agencies and corporations,” and so has $905,000 in its “new building fund,” Stewart-Leach reported.
But the project cost for the planned 12,000-square-foot facility, after the land acquisition and around $180,000 of in-kind contributions, was budgeted at $1,600,729.
So to see the building completed, a $696,000 “funding gap” remained, she had said. After talking with the builders about materials costs, she said Tuesday, she revised the estimated need upward to about $800,000 but hopes it could be partly met with in-kind donations.
The steel and concrete building, to be constructed by Pearce Building Systems, with Wesley Parker of Parker Engineering as consulting engineer and Frank D’Arcangelo of DPR Architecture as consulting architect, will include a 6,500-square-foot warehouse for the food pantry, in addition to the 5,500-square-foot “public area” that will house the commercial-size kitchen, dining hall and classrooms. Four Georgia Southern University interior design students contributed concept studies for the project
The warehouse is planned to include two walk-in freezers and two walk-in coolers with a backup generator, as well as dry storage areas and an office for the pantry manager.
For decades, the Food Bank has operated from a succession of “temporary” facilities. The last two – first, the old Sallie Zetterower Elementary School campus on the east side of Statesboro which has since become the Statesboro Family YMCA, and second, from 2013 until now, in the old Julia P. Bryant School on the west side, were provided by the Bulloch County Schools at nominal, essentially zero, rent.
Planning in earnest for a permanent building began after the Board of Education in March 2021 contracted the sale of a large portion of the old JPB campus to a developer of seniors apartment complexes.
The history of the Food Bank had been “a struggle to stay open, a struggle to stay in place,” said County Manager Tom Couch.
“But through the hard work of many hands in this community, and particularly the Food Bank board of directors and their officers, they wanted something bigger,” he said. “They had big goals and big ideas.”
‘The Brannon Pantry’
Several speakers at Tuesday’s ceremony expressed appreciation for the work and dedication of Joe Bill Brannon, who died in June 2020 after more than 25 years as a leading Statesboro Food Bank volunteer, much of that time as its full-time de facto director.
His daughter, Jodi Brannon, continues as operations manager, overseeing the day-to-day work of coordinating volunteers, receiving donated food and issuing it to people in need. She has worked with the organization for 17 years, the first three as a volunteer and since then as an employee.
“I think today of Joe Bill Brannon,” Couch said. “I wish he were here. The whole Brannon family had servant hearts.”
Statesboro Mayor Jonathan McCollar said, “I think that as a community we’ve shown love in efforts to provide for those who may not be in the best circumstances or the best situations, and I think that the legacy of Joe Bill Brannon and this Food Bank speaks to that.”
When Chairman Roy Thompson of the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners spoke, he had Jodi Brannen sit in a folding chair near the lectern, leaving an empty chair, which Thompson said represented her father, between them.
Thompson recalled how just a few years ago he would see a little truck, “most any morning, loaded down with food, with one man in the driver’s seat. But that one man went to every store he could, collecting every kind of food that he could get, and he went back and Jodi was there to help him unload that food. You don’t forget people like that.”
In her remarks, Stewart-Leach, who was hired as executive director effective in January to guide fundraising, planning and construction efforts, said the warehouse portion of the building will be called the pantry and suggested “The Brannon Pantry.”
After the ceremony, Jodi Brannon said she appreciated all the kind words about her father and recalled a newspaper story in which he referred to the Food Bank as his church.
“The quote was, ‘This is my church, this is where I put in Christian service and this is where I make a difference,’ so he would be proud that there’s a place and hopefully the community will get behind it so that we can continue to make sure that our fellow citizens who don’t have as much aren’t without food,” she said.
A tentative timeline that Stewart-Leach showed City Council last week suggested a January grand opening. Brannon said she is concerned about whether will happen and would still like to hear any offers of temporary space as a fallback.
For updates on the Food Bank’s building campaign, follow its Facebook page, Statesboro Food Bank News. Interested donors can also join the online campaign at www.givebutter.com/foodbankbuildingfund or text "HungerHurts" to 53555 to contribute. Cash or check donations can be mailed to the Food Bank at P.O. Box 543, Statesboro, GA 30459.
For additional information on ways to contribute, contact Sheila Stewart-Leach at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those interested in volunteering can contact Jodi Brannon at 912-489-3663.