After record year of need, Food Bank of Delaware plans expansion in Milford

Emily Lytle
Delaware News Journal

Cathy Kanefsky remembers her first week as president and CEO of the Food Bank of Delaware.

It was last March, and she had the opportunity to attend one of the Food Bank’s mass distribution events where people can drive in and pick up boxes of food.

“There were about (700) or 800 cars coming to each of the locations, which was pretty overwhelming to me and humbling, just to stand there and watch car after car," Kanefsky said. "And then I learned that was like a third of what had been happening months ago.”

She had, of course, seen the huge food distribution events taking place across the state last year. Like many people, she was struck by the immense need sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

MORE:Food Bank of Delaware served more families than ever during first year of COVID-19 relief efforts

It wasn't until later she realized some of those hungry families had a need far before the pandemic even arrived.

"It is incredible to me to see the numbers of people that have always been hungry and didn’t know about the Food Bank," she said. 

Part of that is because people became more aware of what the Food Bank offered when it so visibly set up food distribution at places like the Christiana Mall or Dover International Speedway. People also seemed more willing to get help when they saw so many other people getting in line, Kanefsky said.

Now, that overarching need spotlighted by the pandemic is prompting the Food Bank of Delaware to expand its location in Milford.

The Milford City Council voted in May to approve the Food Bank's proposal to build a 60,000-square-foot warehouse and a 3,000-square-foot pantry in the Independence Commons Business Park off Delaware Veterans Boulevard. The organization is set to purchase 11.5 acres near the Milford Veterans Home, and construction of the smaller pantry is expected to begin later this year.

As the first of three construction phases, the pantry is expected to open in early 2022. Construction of the larger building, which will be used for food storage and workforce training programs, will come throughout 2022 and is expected to be finished by 2023.

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The third phase includes an educational garden, which will face the veterans home and give members of the community an opportunity to learn more about gardening. It will be accessible for people with disabilities and will likely resemble the garden at the Food Bank's Newark location, Kanefsky said.

The entire project will cost about $8 million.

The Food Bank's current site in Milford is a 16,000-square-foot building on Mattlind Way, less than a mile away from the proposed building.

A scene from the garden at the Food Bank of Delaware's Newark site. The new educational garden in Milford will likely look similar.

The organization has not made a final decision on whether it will continue to use its old building, which includes recently renovated commercial kitchens used for workforce development programs.

The new location was a big selling point for the expansion, Kanefsky said, because now the Food Bank will be surrounded by other organizations like the Milford Veterans Home, the Boys & Girls Club and Delaware Hospice.

“We’re part of a business park that’s actually created to serve, and to help hope multiply and to help heal," she said.

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Partnering with other community organizations is a big part of Kanefsky's vision for the future of the Food Bank of Delaware, too. After the pandemic, the organization saw its partner organizations multiply, and Kanefsky said she thinks this new expansion will help that continue.

The organization already works with groups like Autism Delaware to help people with disabilities get connected and volunteer at the Food Bank – opportunities that may grow with the garden and additional workforce development programs at the new site.

That’s also why it was so fitting that the Swank Family Foundation, which typically supports efforts that help Delawareans who live with neurological conditions, donated $356,000 toward the project.

A show of support for the Food Bank of Delaware, U.S. Army and American Red Cross at a rainy drive-through food distribution event last year.

"This is not a typical Swank Family Foundation grant, but 2020-21 wasn’t a typical year," Ed Goldenberg, president of the foundation, said in a statement. "The Board feels confident that Delawareans who live with neurological diseases and their families are among those who will benefit from the Food Bank’s expansion.”

While this expansion is just getting started, the Food Bank of Delaware continues to serve families. Looking into the future, Kanefsky said her biggest focus is to make sure all the staff members and volunteers know how appreciated they are, especially after this past challenging year.

“They didn’t just step up during the pandemic,” she said. “They overachieved. And it’s been humbling to be a part of this team.”

Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at elytle@doverpost.com or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.