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How Commerce coordinates with nonprofits to help fight food insecurity.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity has been on the rise, and there’s reason to believe that recent inflation — which is driving up the costs of food — is making things worse.

“It seems like it’s just one thing after another impacting families,” says Jordan Browning, public information officer with Ozarks Food Harvest, a Feeding America food bank in Springfield, Mo. “It’s been a perfect storm, and it impacts us as well. We’re seeing increased costs for fuel and for food. We’re anticipating that our transportation costs will increase by 25 – 40% over the next few months. It’s a difficult time.”

The need will be even more acute this fall, when the federal policy that provided school lunches to all students regardless of their family’s income — an initiative that started during the pandemic — is set to expire.

Commerce Bank is trying to help in its communities. In addition to engagement across our footprint with national organizations like the United Way, we also support a number of local efforts that allow us to home in on who really needs help. In Springfield, that takes the form of joining with nonprofits like Ozarks Food Harvest, which provides food to 270 organizations in 28 counties in southwest Missouri.

“We support them through donations as well as personal involvement,” says Doug Neff, director of community markets. “Our team members will often volunteer to package boxes of food or hand things out.”

Jill Reynolds, a senior vice president with Commerce Trust, a division of Commerce Bank, sits on Ozarks Food Harvest’s board and says it’s an amazing organization. “They have a great reputation in the community because they do really good work,” she says. “I’m passionate about their mission. It’s what got me interested in working with them in the first place, and it still motivates me today.”

One of the ways Commerce Bank and The Commerce Bancshares Foundation supports Ozarks Food Harvest is by organizing groups of team members who volunteer their time to fill backpacks with food, which get distributed to families with school-age children. “It’s always a fulfilling experience,” says Reynolds. “I’m proud to say that we can pack a lot of backpacks over the course of a few hours.”

Browning says support from the business community is vital. “Partners like Commerce Bank allow us to do what we do best, which is to distribute food,” he says. “Because of our scale and the size of our warehouse, we’re able to take a $1 donation and stretch that into $10 worth of groceries. We’re able to make the most of the support we get.”

Another example of the bank’s work to address food insecurity can be found in Columbia, Mo., where Commerce Bank and The Commerce Bancshare Foundation works with The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri. This organization serves 32 counties and has the largest territory of Missouri’s six food banks. It’s also the only one in the state — and one of a few in the nation — to provide food to partner agencies at no charge.

Steve Sowers, senior regional director, chief executive officer, Missouri community markets, has been on The Food Bank’s board for more than a decade. “Hunger is a real problem across all of our communities, and it’s an issue that all of us at Commerce care about,” he says.

“We believe in investing in our communities. Strong local economies are important to us; helping others is part of our core values. We have a long history of support for organizations like The Food Bank, which is very well run. They not only address food insecurity, they also support other nonprofits whose missions are important to us, like homeless shelters and Boys & Girls Club chapters.”

Just as others have noticed, officials at The Food Bank believe hunger is on the rise in their area as well. “One million Missourians were projected to be food insecure in 2021,” says Lindsay Lopez, The Food Bank’s president and CEO. “There’s no question that inflation and hunger go hand-in-hand. We’ve seen it in the past, and we’re seeing it today. When everything costs more, neighbors have to make tough trade-offs that make food security even more challenging. That often results in an increase in the number of people we’re serving.”

Lopez says that Commerce’s support comes in many forms. “Commerce helps us with funding, which is a huge benefit,” she notes. “And Commerce staff help us in so many other ways, too—especially through volunteering. They set a standard for philanthropy and service in our community. Team members come on site every month—to work in our volunteer room and help us repackage food. They’ve also helped us with events. Volunteers like those we see from Commerce are golden to us.”

Sowers adds that in recent years, the Commerce team in Columbia started making donations to The Food Bank on behalf of their customers in lieu of sending them holiday gifts. “We include a note to let our customers know, and we’ve often heard that they’re very appreciative of the idea.”

Lopez is a fan of the concept. “I think it’s fabulous,” she says. “The notes they send include information about the impact of our work, and it helps spread the word about our work. You can’t put a value on the importance of community awareness.”

The people at Commerce view supporting the fight against food insecurity as being vitally important. “For our communities to thrive from an economic standpoint, we need to make sure we’re providing opportunities for the citizens who live in them,” says Neff.

“It’s important to ensure our communities continue to be great places to live, and part of that involves supporting people in need. Right now is a tough time for a lot of people. A lot of people are needing to access food banks who haven’t needed help before.”

Lopez notes that food insecurity is something that can happen to people from all walks of life. “Whether it’s job loss, having a spouse pass away, or getting a medical diagnosis,” she says. “Any one of us is a bad situation away from being affected by food insecurity. COVID really put a spotlight on that, and it’s continuing today.”

Fortunately, supporting organizations that address hunger is something Commerce intends to continue for a long time to come. “Commerce has a giving spirit, and we work hard to play an active role in our communities,” says Reynolds. “Right now, the need is great. I’m proud to work for a company that believes supporting food pantries and other charitable organizations is important.

If you or your family is impacted by food insecurity, or if you’re interested in volunteering, visit the websites for Ozarks Food Harvest (covering southwest Missouri) or The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri. In other parts of the U.S., you can find your local food bank at the Feeding America website.

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