Nebraska food bank announces $37 million construction and relocation plan to help meet ‘unanticipated’ demand

OMAHA, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) – Increasing demand for food assistance in the 93 counties it serves has pushed the Food Bank for the Heartland to extraordinary measures, including renting refrigerated trailers to store food in the parking lot.

Volunteers and semi-trailer truck drivers visiting the Omaha nonprofit often block the road leading to its current headquarters.

Meanwhile, rising food costs and the end of many government assistance programs during the pandemic have created “disruption” that officials said they have not seen in the food bank’s 42-year history.

To meet growing needs, the food bank on Sunday publicly announced a $37 million plan to build a new office and warehouse complex on a larger, 12-acre campus on the northeast corner of of 84th and L streets in Omaha.

Aerial view of the future food bank for the Heartland facility at the northeast corner of 84th and L streets in Omaha. (Courtesy of HDR and Project Advocates)(Courtesy of HDR and Project Advocates | Courtesy of HDR and Project Advocates)

40% higher

The representatives were joined by Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, who publicly unveiled renderings and other details of the 105,000-square-foot building, which is about 40 percent larger than the current home.

The number of parking spaces will almost double, for a new total of around 170 spaces at the new base which, for more than half a century, was home to a car dealership.

“Our project will transform 84th and L,” said CEO and President Brian Barks. “It will transform the way we do business and the way we are able to serve the community – with a focus on healthy food.”

While planning began in 2020, the nonprofit’s board chose to delay the construction and relocation announcement until it has secured 60 percent of the $27 million it hopes to raise in philanthropic donations, Barks said . About $10 million is to come internally and from the sale of the existing building at 10525 J St.

The nonprofit continues to seek community contributions for the capital campaign.

Demolition and construction work is set to begin this summer, according to a project timeline, and the move-in is slated for 2026.

Food bank officials say the milestone comes as Nebraskans’ demand for food assistance grows.

Individuals and households served by Food Bank for the Heartland(Courtesy of Food Bank for H | Courtesy of Food Bank for Heartland)

Paul Maass, CEO of Scoular, said his involvement with the food bank showed him that the lack of healthy food is widespread.

“For many, hunger is a hidden problem,” he told dozens of supporters gathered Sunday under a large tent on the grounds of the future food bank. “But it’s happening all around us, every moment of every day. I learned that this is not an urban, rural or suburban problem. Hunger is a problem everywhere.”

26.7 million kilograms of food last year

Covering 78,000 square miles in 77 Nebraska counties and 16 western Iowa counties, the food bank works with 555 network partners to distribute food to those in need.

Last year, the network distributed more than 26.7 million pounds of food.

According to the organization’s projections, it will serve 600,548 households this fiscal year. That’s up from nearly 572,000 households a year earlier and about 313,000 five years ago.

Looking at demand from an individual perspective, the food bank expects to serve 1.62 million people this fiscal year, up from 1.52 million last year and 843,000 in 2019.

Shedding light on the demand, Barks said Nebraskans have faced increasing hardship since the December 2018 government shutdown.

Historic floods followed in March 2019, displacing thousands of people, including some who continue to rebuild.

COVID-19 has led to an 89% increase in the number of meals distributed by the food bank. People who lost their jobs during the pandemic tapped into savings and piled up debt.

“Inflation and the lingering effects of the pandemic continue to make hunger a daily reality in our communities,” the food bank said in its capital campaign statement. “With food prices skyrocketing, too many of our neighbors are forced to make impossible choices between the things they need to survive and thrive — like paying for food, medicine, utilities or childcare.”

Highlighting the pandemic

The agency noted a highlight of its response to the pandemic. During that time, the food bank developed a small USDA-certified “Clean Room” that accepts and processes bulk donations of nutrient-dense proteins.

Representatives said the program was successful, but building it took up space at the Volunteer Center.

The new facility will include a larger clean room for protein processing.

Among other features:

  • Increased storage capacity of cold and frozen foods; separate areas for loading and unloading operations.
  • Increased space for volunteer groups and staff collaboration.
  • Easy access to major highways and the Interstate system.

Records show the sprawling corner property was sold to the Food Bank for $7.1 million.

H&H Chevrolet, which has been on the site since 1968, moved last year to a larger lot in Sarpy County’s Steel Ridge development.

Barks said the food bank has visited several sites and considered other options, including renovation. He said clearing the 84th and L streets site and building again was more economical.

He said if people knew how the staff was able to increase production in the current facility, they would be even more impressed. He called the level of demand “unpredictable.”

“It’s been a rough ride,” Barks said. “Getting to this point is everything from relief to joy to emotions all rolled into one.”

Hunger exists in all 92 counties served by Food Bank for the Heartland(Courtesy of Food Bank for the Heartland | Courtesy of Food Bank for the Heartland)

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. The Nebraska Examiner maintains its editorial independence. Contact editor Cate Folsom with questions: [email protected]. Follow the Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

Click here to subscribe to our 10/11 Daily Digest NOW and breaking news alerts delivered straight to your inbox.