Food Charity Delivers Record Despite Rising Overhead Costs
By PATRICK LEE, Star Tribune
June 22, 2008
Despite the growing costs of fuel and food, Twin Cities-based Feed My Starving Children has shattered its own monthly record for meals sent overseas to developing countries.
In May, it shipped more than 10 million meals to 12 countries, nearly doubling its record of 5.5 million meals from April. The nonprofit's growth is an anomaly, especially in the context of increasing prices and focus on domestic issues. But partnerships with overseas relief groups and a workforce of nearly all volunteers has helped make ends meet.
"We are in the most explosive growth that we have had," said Executive Director Mark Crea, who said luck and faith bridged the gap between cutting costs and expanding production. "At a time when the general trend is one direction, we seem to be heading in the opposite direction."
Despite the successes, challenges remain. Constant fundraising is an inevitable reality. On the international front, the global food crisis continues to intensify, mirroring spikes in demand for food and limited means to buy it. And on the research front, Feed My Starving Children is working to pinpoint a new food formula designed for babies suffering from diarrhea due to HIV/AIDS.
This Monday, a small group of staff members will travel to Haiti to conduct the first field tests for two new potential products, which have been in the making for more than a year. The new formula will complement the group's current food packages, which are suitable for malnourished people of all ages. Once they decide on a specific recipe, more thorough testing will begin in six months in other countries, including Guatemala and the Philippines.
Although it would make economic sense to move headquarters closer to the ocean, the Twin Cities have an asset even more valuable than reduced shipping fees: "Minnesota nice" -- or as Operations Director Matt Morowski describes it, a solid bastion of volunteers and a strong tradition of social justice.
"The Twin Cities undoubtedly are the anchor of the organization," he said. "We're 100 percent people power. ... The payoff for us is not a profit payoff, it's in the ability to produce and distribute more food to those in need."
The group's fight against world hunger begins in Houston where 42,000-pound shipments of rice start making their way toward packing facilities in Brooklyn Park, Chanhassen and Eagan. Six months ago, transporting a load of rice cost about $1,200. The cost now: $1,900.
"I just see it as part of a humanitarian supply chain," Morowski said. "The closer we can get it to the ocean, the less logistical expenses are involved."
Volunteers manage every aspect of meal production, from unloading industrial-size cartons of ingredients to mixing them, assembly-line style, in the correct proportions. The bags are vacuum-sealed, boxed and loaded into semis, destined for one of more than 50 countries in which the group fosters a partnership.
Two cents more
Volunteer interest has been so strong that in March the organization expanded its Eagan location into a facility open from 9 a.m. until 9:30 p.m., with groups of about 90 people rotating through two-hour shifts. The expanded Eagan site and a new facility in Aurora, Ill. --the group's first site outside the Twin Cities -- can each produce up to 25 million meals annually.
But volunteers, who range from churchgoers and the retired elderly to enthusiastic kids and the occasional bridal shower party, cannot compensate for every aspect of the broader economic reality. A jump in global food prices, caused by greater demand and a relatively stable supply, forced Feed My Starving Children to up the cost of its specially formulated individual meal packets from 15 cents to 17 cents in April. Based on a monthly volume of millions of meals, the two-cent gap is substantial.
"If we didn't fill that gap, we'd have seven million meals we'd have to cut," said Heidi Seyer, the nonprofit's marketing director. "In the United States, we might see our grocery bill going up ten dollars, but in a lot of these developing countries, they are starving."
And the organization's goals belie the underlying increases in costs and strain on an already limited staff. In 2003, Feed My Starving Children packed 3 million meals; in 2008, their goal is 55 million; and in 2013, their target is 200 million.
'Leap of faith'
As a Christian organization, Feed My Starving Children has an unconventional funding structure, with most of its donations coming from private individuals and churches. Government funding and large corporate or foundation grants are not an option, Crea said, for a religious nonprofit that primarily benefits people outside the country. But he also said pulling back on production due to financial or economic conditions is simply not a choice: "How cruel is it to start feeding a bunch of starving kids in Zimbabwe and say, 'Oh gosh, we guessed wrong and did some poor planning'?"
"We don't want to push [growth] too fast if we can't sustain it," Crea explained. "One of the things that we come back to as a Christian organization is that there is a bit of leap of faith here for us, and ... we continue to be blessed in ways that you sometimes can't always plug into a financial model."
During Feed My Starving Children's 15-year history of sending meals overseas, it has lost only one shipment of food to a belligerent government. To Crea, that is nothing short of a miracle.
But when asked if he still worried regularly about the group's financial viability in the long-run, he simply said: "Do I have grey hair?"
In fact, he has a head full of snow-white hair -- but no bald spot, yet.
Volunteering and giving of yourself for others is something near and dear to my heart. We have helped out at FMSC many times, and I cannot begin to tell you how amazing it is. There are so many organizations out there who could use even an hour of your time. I would encourage you to get involved.
"...they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability." II Corinthians 8:3
"Blessed are those who are generous, because they feed the poor." Proverbs 22:9
"Live simply so that others may simply live."