Kenai Peninsula Food Bank director Linda Swarner to retire

After 15 years as Executive Director of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, Linda Swarner will be retiring from the position in spring 2018.

Swarner announced her retirement during a Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon speech on Wednesday. She said she has no definite plans after she leaves the position.

The Kenai Peninsula Food Bank provides food directly to about 800 low-income families a month and collects and distributes donated food to 72 other low-income feeding programs on the Kenai Peninsula, using a staff of 12. It incorporated as a nonprofit in 1988, and Swarner became its executive director in 2003, after previously volunteering in the Food Bank’s Soup Supper and Auction fundraisers while a Kenai City Council member.

Sal Mattero, president of the Food Bank’s 10-member board of directors, said the Food Bank would use the Anchorage-based Foraker Group, a consultancy for nonprofits and a nonprofit itself, to recruit Swarner’s replacement.

During her time leading the Food Bank, Swarner said she’s seen a consistently rising demand for anti-hunger actions. In 2003, she said the Food Bank fed about 500 families a month. The Food Bank’s monthly average service population has risen from 600 since 2012. Swarner attributes the rise to economic instability, shrinking wages and greater awareness of the help the Food Bank offers.

Seniors are one demographic growing among the Food Bank’s service population.

“We have a growing number of seniors here on the peninsula, and a lot of them are on fixed incomes,” Swarner said. “That’s trending up, because they’re ‘aging in place’ on the peninsula.”

The Food Bank’s Fireweed Diner, which serves free meals on weekdays from 11:30 a.m to 2:30 p.m, has seen more steady service numbers in her time at the Food Bank, Swarner said — about 70–120 people per day.

According to a Thursday press release from the Food Bank, Swarner saw the Food Bank’s annual operating budget increase three-fold during her tenure, to the present $640,000. In addition to continuing the Food Bank’s popular Soup Supper and Auction to its 21st annual installment in August, Swarner also introduced a second annual fundraiser — the Clash of Culinary Kings, a competition between three local chefs — in March 2015.

The majority of donations to the Food Bank are unsold items from local grocery stores — including Fred Meyer, Safeway, Save U More and Walmart — which made up 59 percent of its donations by weight in September 2017, according to Swarner’s presentation at the luncheon. Yearly contributions from grocery stores between 2017 and 2014 have ranged from 529,158 pounds to 630,942 pounds of food.

When she started at the food bank, Swarner said the group collected all the grocery donations with single truck — prone to breakdowns — and had little room to store it.

“Merchandising of groceries has changed dramaticaly since those days as well,” she said. “You have more packaged, like lettuce — salads and vegetables are pre-packaged. The fruit is cut. When I started you didn’t get trays of food at the grocery store all cut up and ready to eat. Cut up fruit doesn’t last as long as whole fruit so we have to move it faster.”

Swarner has seen the Food Bank grow its storage space and freezer capacity to react to this need.

Two U.S. Department of Agriculture programs are also major contributors: The Emergency Food Assistance Program contributed 15 percent of September 2017’s poundage of food, and the senior-targeted Commodity Supplemental Food Program provided 17 percent. Eight percent of the September 2017 donations came from local bakeries, restaurants, caterers, and other non-grocery businesses. Some non-food businesses also donate services as transportation.

Though individuals didn’t make any food bank contributions during September 2017 — the month Swarner used in her presentation as an example — they made annual contributions between 14,888 pounds and 33,435 pounds of food between 2017 and 2014.

In addition to collecting donations, the Food Bank has grown its own vegetables in a garden that Swarner said began in the late 90s. In her directorship, she’s added a greenhouse and started a Tuesday farmer’s market, at which farmers can pay for space either in cash or an equivalent value of food.

Like other local charities, the Food Bank will be affected by the June 2018 closure of the nonprofit fundraising group Kenai Peninsula United Way. A decline in the oil-driven economy and competition from more direct online fundraising has decreased donations to the United Way for several years, shrinking their list of supported organizations from 27 to the present 13, including the Food Bank. The bright side is that the decline was slow enough for United Way agencies like the Food Bank to gradually replace the lost revenue. The Food Bank once received 30 percent of its budget from the United Way. Last year that number was approximately 5 percent, Swarner said.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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