By Maria Saporta
The Rotary Club of Atlanta could not have found a more fitting speaker for its Thanksgiving message than Bill Bolling, founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
What the folks at Rotary did not know is that Bolling will be receiving the top honor from Georgia Trend’s 100 Most Influential Georgians in January, 2012. Bolling probably is the first nonprofit leader to receive the magazine’s “Georgian of the Year” award.
Bolling began his talk by giving thanks for our freedom and our ability to agree to disagree. He thanked Rotary for being “one of those containers that holds the energy” to make Atlanta a stronger community.
For Bolling, the way to build community is through food.
“Today one in six Americans — 49 million people in America — are having trouble putting food on their family’s table,” Bolling said. “It’s even worse here in Georgia. It’s one out of five.”
The economic recession has turned former Food Bank volunteers and donors into people who need donations to get by.
“Fifty percent of the people asking for help have a job, but they are not making a living wage, or they don’t have health insurance or affordable housing,” Bolling said, adding that the use of food stamps has increased by 60 percent since 2007.
And that has put a strain on the Food Bank, which serves 700 community-based organizations and has helped create another seven food banks across the state. The Food Bank helps more than 70,000 families in metro Atlanta.
“Last year, we experience a 34 percent increase in distribution,” Bolling said. “The year before, we increased 31 percent. We might be the only bank that’s growing.”
But it’s not just about food. Bolling helped establish outreach centers to help the working poor receive all the tax credits eligible to them. Forty sites have been set up throughout the city for a total of investment of $300,000 with 400 volunteers. That has resulted in those workers receiving $22 million back, which they reinvest in the community.
“Now that’s a good investment,” said Bolling, who has to raise $18.8 million a year to keep the Food Bank going. “Fore every dollar we raise, we are able to get $8 back,” Bolling said. “That a pretty good return on investment.”
Bolling also said that 93 percent of all the money it raises goes to programs, and only 7 percent towards administrative costs.
Bolling then made a case for the importance of fresh food and vegetables as well as community gardening. Making sure people receive the best nutrition possible leads to better health and a more educated populous.
“I’m also thankful for diapers,” said Bolling, recounting a statistic that the sales of diapers had decreased 9 percent in the past year while the sales of diaper rash ointment had increased by more than 2 percent. “Last week, we received one million diapers as part of Kimberly-Clark’s ‘Every Bottom Counts’ campaign.”
Bolling went on to thank Georgia-Pacific, Cisco Systems, UPS, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Kroger and Publix, which along with so many other corporations, have stepped up their contributions to the Food Bank.
Then Bolling thanked U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) for his work in public policy in the areas of hunger and nutrition. As the senior senator on the Agriculture Committee, Chambliss has warned Bolling that budgets could be cut 30 percent this year.
Gov. Nathan Deal also has been a partner, launching the “No Kid Hungry” campaign with the Georgia Association of Food Banks just last week.
“There’s always the question of whether our work is heroic or whether it is strategic,” Bolling said, adding that the Food Bank only goes where it’s invited. “We leverage our resources. We work across sectors. And we were regional before regional was cool.
“But the food banks alone are not the answer to hunger,” Bolling continued. “ We’ve got to be involved in creating jobs, we’ve got to be committed to educations — our schools and universities. We have to be committed to neighbors and families. It doesn’t matter which door we walk through. By any of those doors we can fight hunger.”
Bolling also said he was tired of the blame game for the current state of affairs — “those who make too much money because they’re too greedy or those who don’t make enough money because they are too lazy.”
For Bolling, the real question is “How will we build back America? How will we build back our community?”
Answering his own questions, Bolling said: “It feels like we are stuck right now.” And then addressed the Rotarians directly. “We are the ones we are waiting for. We have built this region. We have built this community. We have to build our future on a strong foundation of trust….”
Then Bolling ended his talk on a positive note.
“As hard as things are, I’ve never been as excited about the future,” Bolling said. “My optimism doesn’t come out of naïveté.”
Bolling said his optimism comes from both young people and the leaders in the community who are smart enough and connected enough to make a difference.
“We are overwhelmed with opportunity,” Bolling said, describing how he has been doing the same work for 40 years. “I certainly encourage you to be leaders.”