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Built to nourish

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When the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank approached the Rasmuson Foundation asking for an outright expansion grant in late 2008, the Rasmuson Foundation said no.

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Instead, the foundation countered with a challenge: it would give the food bank $400,000 for the project if the food bank managed to raise that same amount within a designated period of time.

"They were a little reluctant to take it on because it seemed like a lot of money to raise," said Rasmuson Foundation President Diane Kaplan, "but we had a lot of confidence that they would be successful."

And they were successful, beyond the point initially imagined. Through the creation of the "Building to Nourish" capital campaign committee, the food bank not only managed to raise the necessary $400,000 to secure the Rasmuson Foundation grant, but also collected an additional $600,000. This brought the grand total to $1.4 million.

The food bank celebrated the outpouring of support for the project during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday afternoon. Community members, politicians, and board members gathered for tours of the remodeled building and discussed how the original expansion plans flourished into something even greater after all of the donations streamed in.

"We had fish processors and people from the community who were giving us things that were perishable that we didn't have room for in our small freezers or refrigerator units," explained board of directors president Lisa Roberts. "So the original thought was to just add that."

When the extra $600,000 came in, the board decided to include even more upgrades: in addition to the new energy efficient freezer and cooler, the food bank now has new heating and electrical systems, a repaired foundation, larger store area, and waiting area.

The food bank has served the Kenai Peninsula since 1987, with 20 percent of the residents living in the region taking advantage of its services. In 2009, the non-profit organization's client base jumped 40 percent, largely due to the economic downturn and high unemployment rate.

"When families are disrupted like that, that's often the time they have to turn to the services of food banks to get them through a rough time," Kaplan said.

Kaplan clarified that while many people immediately associate food banks with homeless, utterly destitute people, the reality is many of the clients who use the food bank's services are people just going through an unusually rough patch in their lives.

"A lot of people who work in low paying jobs might get three weeks into the month and have a problem with their car, and then they're faced with a choice of, 'Do I pay my rent? Do I get my car fixed? Do I buy food?'" she explained.

"So if your food needs can be taken care of in another way, then it helps you sustain your family and keeps you from becoming homeless."

The food bank's soup kitchen, the Fireweed Diner, is still under construction, but people can get sack lunches there until it is completed. Aside from that and some additional work on the freezer unit, the entire project should be finished by mid-August, executive director Linda Swarner said.

A larger celebration is planned for November.

The food bank will hold its annual soup supper and auction at Kenai Central High School on Aug. 27 at 5:30 p.m.

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