By Tom Momberg

St. John’s Bread and Life program feeds about 3,500 individuals every day in Queens and Brooklyn. For this reason and then some, the Brooklyn-based nonprofit, 795 Lexington Ave., was recognized last week by the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, as a 2014 “Neighborhood Builder.”

With a $200,000 award split between the next two years, St. John’s will be able to further its mostly privately funded operating expenses, planning to expand services where they are needed most.

Jeff Barker, New York market president of Bank of America, said that just as important as the money are the leadership training and associative networking opportunities offered by the Neighborhood Builders award.

“In many cases, these nonprofits grow, and grow organically, under strong leadership,” Barker said. “However, the emerging leader training really enables the directors to develop a strong No. 2,” which is exactly the role that Bread and Life Food Services Director Christy Robb will come into under the training.

Robb and Bread and Life Executive Director Tony Butler will also be able to network with organizations around the country during the training, which “for many of these organizations is the first time they have a chance to talk to colleagues around the country who are often going through some of the exact same things,” Barker said.

Bread and Life has witnessed a steady 4 percent to 6 percent annual increase in demand for its services. Butler said that by networking and by working with some local firms, Bread and Life will independently develop a strategic plan to address the growing hunger problem with this award.

“This is very good timing, as we are looking at how we need to expand, because the poverty needs are changing in the city,” Butler said. “The question is how do we need to evolve? Is it geographic expansion?”

Butler said the greatest increase in poverty needs has been among young families.

“In New York, we have the rising cost of rent and cost of living, while the kinds of jobs being created are mostly minimum wage,” he said. “We often have several families who have to choose between paying rent and paying for food.”

The Bank of America Charitable Foundation, which focuses much of its efforts on community and workforce development, has recognized this growing need. Barker said the number of Community Builders applicants from poverty work groups and food pantries has increased tremendously.

“With gleaming new buildings rising up in the city, I think we tend to forget the number of people who are struggling,” Barker said. “I was out at St. John’s a couple of weeks ago, working on the food service line. When you go out and experience food needs first hand, it kind of brings it all home.”

After 10 years of its Neighborhood Builders program, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation has invested over $160 million in about 800 nonprofit organizations around the country, making it one of the most well-recognized grantors in the nonprofit community.

Competition for Neighborhood Builders awards has become more intense, and after six years of applications, Bread and Life was finally recognized.

“St. John’s is a great organization, and what has resonated for us is their computer-based programming and organization, which makes sure the food basket is dispersed appropriately,” Barker said. “So not only is St. John’s addressing hunger, it gives its patrons more of a freedom of choice, and do it in a modern technological way.”

Butler said the award will free up some of his time and help him establish new connections, which will in turn allow the nonprofit to take a more in-depth look at the city’s food insecurities.

This will open us up to all new connections in the business world, as well as in the nonprofit world,” Butler said. “I like it when the nonprofit world and for-profit world can come together to make a difference in our communities.”

Bread and Life was founded in 1982 as a church-based soup kitchen, but has grown to also provide social service assistance to over 37,000 people in Brooklyn and Queens. The soup kitchen is affiliated with St. John’s University only insofar as it promotes community-based research, service-learning opportunities and an understanding of poverty among students.

Reach reporter Tom Momberg by e-mail at tmomberg@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.

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