As the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to stress communities, electric cooperatives and their partner organizations are working together to help feed hungry families.
Some, including financial cooperative CoBank, have joined the Tennessee Valley Authority in a regional effort to keep shelves filled at food pantries.
“We have eight food banks that we work with in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky,” said TVA’s Ashley Elizabeth Walker, who works on community engagement. “Under our COVID-19 Community Care Fund, we will partner with any of our 154 affiliated electric utilities, including dozens of electric co-ops, to help get food to people who need it.”
Gibson Electric Membership Corp. is among the co-ops participating in the matching funds initiative. The Trenton, Tennessee-based distribution co-op has committed $20,000 through July to help stock shelves at its emergency food pantries. CoBank, a national, Colorado-based bank serving rural communities and agriculture, added $10,000, leveraging the $15,000 TVA donation to help fight hunger across its service territory.
“After speaking with our local leaders about the needs within our communities, we were encouraged to work with our local food banks,” said Dan Rodamaker, Gibson EMC president and CEO. “The $45,000 overall commitment is expected to provide 180,000 meals while helping regional farmers and food processors reduce surpluses created by the loss of their bulk and institutional sales.”
Kevin Riel, chairman of the CoBank board of directors, said the pandemic “has created unprecedented challenges for communities across the country.”
“It is severely taxing nonprofit organizations and other institutions that provide a wide range of vital services to people in need, including hunger relief, education, social services, aid for veterans and other programs,” he said.
Growing Good Ideas
TVA, CoBank and electric co-ops have responded to the pandemic by growing or expanding funding for their existing community service initiatives.
TVA has added $2 million to its Community Care Fund as part of its COVID-19 response. That initial commitment, announced in April, is an extension of a program launched in 2016 that has provided $600,000 to food banks.
“We go out to these communities, TVA pays for a big semi-truck of food and we set up distribution sites,” said Walker. “In addition to the local power companies and co-ops, we partner with local organizations like churches, schools and community groups.”
While about $1.6 million of TVA’s dedicated funding has already been committed, Walker said applications for more partners are still being accepted and additional funding is possible.
In April, CoBank committed an additional $1 million to its Sharing Success program, which matches donations from local customers. It also increased individual donation limits from $7,500 per project to $10,000 for the balance of 2020.
“The most impactful way for CoBank to deploy charitable funds is to do so in partnership with customers, employees and other farm credit institutions,” said Thomas Halverson, CoBank’s president and CEO. “That is the approach we are adopting with COVID-19.”
Sharing the Bounty
Gibson EMC is making sure that food banks throughout its service territory, which includes eight counties in western Tennessee and four in western Kentucky, receive help.
“We have been thrilled and very thankful that both TVA, our wholesale power supplier, and CoBank shared our vision for meeting the critical needs for food during the pandemic,” Gibson’s Rodamaker said. “The donations will be distributed among more than a dozen food banks, with donation amounts based on the number of Gibson EMC members in each of the areas.”
Hunger relief programs have always been one of the top priorities for CoBank’s Sharing Success initiative, said Sherry Johnson, who manages the bank’s corporate social responsibility program.
“Many of the country’s food banks are seeing unprecedented demand due to the COVID-19 crisis, and CoBank customers are responding generously and taking advantage of the increased match available to them through Sharing Success.”
Derrill Holly is a staff writer at NRECA.