As many have heard, Clover Area Assistance Center has recently severed ties with Second Harvest Food Bank. This was not a decision taken lightly or made without great deliberation and compassion, especially considering our relationship with SH began over 30 years ago, as did our commitment to provide food for the hungry in our community. That commitment is unwavering and is exactly why we have taken abuse as well as risks.
Over the past two years, our relationship with SH had become increasingly strained. This was not due to how we provided service, operated our pantry or managed the food entrusted to us. This was the result of two incidents of our truck backing into a fence, a dislike of our volunteers, the implementation of arbitrary rules and restrictions used to punish and control, and an unwillingness to communicate. It is my opinion what we were experiencing was only a symptom of a far greater problem within Second Harvest.
In June 2014, CAAC requested a meeting with SH management to discuss and work through issues, but our request was rejected. In that same month, in response to our truck backing into a fence, we were no longer allowed to load palletized food in the open area near the docks, and were told we would have to load from the public street. This was labor intensive, dangerous and difficult for our volunteers, as well as SH staff.
In October 2014, at the direction of SH staff, our volunteers parked in the open area near the docks to be loaded. We were cited for parking in the wrong place and suspended from receiving food for two weeks. CAAC board president Jason Everson and I expressed concern there was no correlation between where volunteers parked and the denial of food for those in need in our community.
We requested other solutions be reached. SH would not revoke the punitive measures. We were told we were not allowed to contact the SH Board of Directors with our concerns and a grievance hearing could be arranged, but not in time to stay the decision to withhold food. CAAC board proceeded with the request for a hearing.
In November, while waiting to be loaded, a volunteer took a picture of the damaged fence paid for in 2012. It had not been repaired. Everson was notified our volunteers were not allowed behind the building, this was the final warning, and any further issue with volunteers would result in the termination of our agency.
Concerned SH may be looking for a way to terminate our agency before a grievance hearing could be held, the CAAC Board wrote a detailed letter to the board. None responded.
We were notified in December a grievance hearing was scheduled Jan. 29, more than three months after our suspension.
What happened Jan. 29 was not a hearing. It was a verbal assault. Our agency was portrayed as undisciplined and defiant, with volunteers who were obnoxious, disrespectful and dangerous. Among accusations and reprimands, and inaccuracies, we were told Second Harvest would find a way to feed people in our area.
On March 2, we received a letter from Second Harvest stating CAAC was on probation for one year, along with several conditions, including ineligibility to receive TEFAP food (government food). After reviewing the conditions, the CAAC board felt SH had extended its reach of control over our agency and community beyond what a food bank has authority to do.
The CAAC board is committed to the mission of ensuring those in our community who are hungry receive food. They also are willing to challenge the injustice of denying food as a means of control. Prior to requesting to be released as a Second Harvest agency (a required step to apply for membership with the food bank in Columbia), the board located several sources to purchase food from and made all necessary arrangements to do so immediately.
We have not been without food, nor have we had to reduce the amount of food we provide to our clients. This is a major change for us, but not so great it will keep us from fulfilling our mission.
Karen van Vierssen is executive director at Clover Area Assistance Center.