The Greater Chicago Food Depository is fighting hunger even more effectively, thanks to its new $16 million warehouse and distribution facility.
August 11, 2010

The mission statement of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which serves more than 300,000 hungry people every year, could not be more straightforward: "Providing food for hungry people while striving to end hunger in our community."

The 27-year-old, nonprofit organization located on Chicago's South Side collects, processes, and distributes more than 40 million pounds of donated and purchased food to 600 food pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters throughout Cook County, Ill., each year. That's the equivalent of more than 84,300 meals a day.

But that's not enough for Bob Matlosz. The retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, who has served as the facility's director of operations since 1997, has his sights set on feeding the rest of the county's estimated 700,000 people living below the poverty level.

"We live in a bountiful nation with more than enough food," says Matlosz, 61, who holds a PhD in mechanical aerospace engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology. "When there's a call for help, we should be there."

That's an ambitious goal. But, after more than 20 years of operation in the same facility, the physical limitations of the food depository were frustrating Matlosz and GCFD executive director Michael Mulqueen in their plans to expand the organization's reach. Their hands were tied by the cramped, under-equipped facility.

"Under-equipped is putting it lightly," says George Sambor, VP with Chicago-based A. Epstein and Sons International, which was commissioned by GCFD in early 2001 to design a replacement facility for the organization.

"I walked into their old facility and thought to myself, How on Earth is this the agency that I hear feeds all these people?" says Sambor. The facility was equipped with just two full-height receiving docks, which left many trucks waiting to unload their donations at peak delivery times. Worse, there were no enclosed shipping docks. "They literally had to drive forklift trucks outside in the snow and rain to load the goods" for distribution, says Sambor.

Matlosz adds that the warehouse operations were split into two facilities. "Products had to be shuttled between buildings by truck," he says. Low ceiling heights and tight quarters precluded high-volume storage and efficient flow of products from shipping to receiving.

All that is in the past. A year ago this month, GCFD completed its new, 216,000-sf facility. The 15-month project, which places warehouse, distribution, office, and training functions under one roof, was the culmination of a $30 million capital fundraising campaign by GCFD that kicked off just weeks after 9/11. To date, the campaign has reached 86% of its goal, led by a $5 million donation from Chicago philanthropist Ann Lurie.

Dedicated last June, the $16 million complex is what Mulqueen calls GCFD's "broader assault on hunger." It doubles the organization's food distribution capabilities (to 80 million pounds annually) and triples storage space (to 10.3 million pounds). The warehouse is stocked with two kinds of rack systems: selective, for fast picking, and high-density, for long-term storage; each is 28 feet in height. A 2,600-sf refrigerated dock and a 22,100-sf refrigerator-freezer storage unit add to GCFD's capacity to store and process fruit, vegetables, eggs, and other perishables.

Additional storage and production capacity has allowed the organization to receive product more quickly and to expand its distribution capability, says Matlosz. Recently, for instance, GCFD partnered with the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association to collect unused food from their annual trade shows held in Chicago. The program resulted in 29 semi-trailers' worth of donated food for the food bank. "Our new facility allowed us to absorb the shock of all that food," says Matlosz.

Expanded classroom space has spurred new educational programs, including a series aimed at teaching member agencies how to better operate their food shelters. Training covers everything from food safety and nutrition to fundraising and grant writing.

The facility's 8,000-sf, commercial-grade kitchen is home to a foodservice training program for unemployed adults. During the 12-week program, students master the kitchen environment by learning to prepare up to 2,500 servings of food for distribution daily. More than 80% of the graduates of the program find employment within the foodservice industry, including with companies like Sodexho and Aramark, says kitchen manager Richard Margotta.

From a construction standpoint, the facility is fairly simple: precast concrete walls supported by a structural-steel frame. It's topped with a "cool" roof — a 60-mil-thick, single-ply thermoplastic polyolefin material — that meets Chicago's code for solar reflectance and thermal emittance. An aluminum-framed glass curtain wall juts out from the south-facing façade, marking the main entrance. Its most daring design element is an outdoor patio that is cleverly enclosed with punched precast concrete panels, providing employees and volunteers with a secure place for breaks.

"We weren't out to win design awards," says A. Epstein's Sambor. "This facility had to function very well and look good."

Although the exterior is modest, the inner workings of the facility are quite complex. The building consists of two adjoining structures: a 28-foot-high, two-story office complex attached to a 35-foot-high big-box warehouse. The latter is split into three components — a two-story training and production facility, a warehouse, and a two-story operations complex, all separated by four-hour firewalls to meet city code.

The greatest challenge, says Sambor: Efficiently melding numerous functions within the building and managing the circulation of a diverse range of occupants and users employees, volunteers, agency members, students, and visitors.

"The typical distribution center has a warehouse and a very small office," says Sambor. "We had to accommodate functions for office, warehouse, kitchens, classrooms, processing areas, and a store." GCFD's Matlosz agrees. "This isn't your average warehouse."

The plan organizes the facility into three major clusters around the central warehouse operations: the two-story operations complex on the building's northwest side, the second-floor training areas on the southeast side, and additional staff and volunteer spaces on the southwest side and ground floor. A second-floor catwalk in the warehouse links the clusters.

Placing staff in clusters minimizes the concentration of vehicle and people traffic at one end of the building and places staff in ideal locations, says Matlosz. Offices for agency relations staff, for instance, are located above the shipping and shopping area on the northwest side, where agency members arrive to pick up orders.

Avoiding freezer burn

While many food banks and distribution centers locate large storage freezer and refrigeration units as separate add-on structures to the warehouse facility, the Building Team chose to install its refrigerator-freezer system within the warehouse space. This "box-within-a-box" approach places the freezer in the most ideal location — between receiving and shipping — and reduces energy costs required to maintain ideal freezer temperature during the summer months, according to Matlosz. He estimates that by having an indoor freezer (and thereby exposing the exterior freezer walls to more moderate temperatures), the GCFD will cut freezer/refrigeration energy costs by 10–20%.

The freezer also helps cool the non-air-conditioned warehouse space during the summer months due to the convection created by the cool air around the massive unit. "Feel how cool that is," says Matlosz, placing his own hand on the exterior wall of the freezer. The rising hot air inside the facility hits the cooler exterior wall of the freezer, then drops down to floor level, giving employees a more comfortable working environment.

Another lesson learned from other food banks: avoid "in-rack" sprinkler systems at all cost. "Having sprinkler heads within the racking systems is too dangerous and costly," says Matlosz, who has seen too many accidents with forklift operators clipping in-rack sprinkler heads while loading or unloading palettes, damaging the system and flooding the area. He says many companies end up taking drastic measures to avoid such accidents, to the point of installing height guards on every rack.

As an alternative, the Building Team installed an early suppression fast response sprinkler system at ceiling height. In the event of a fire, the ESFR sprinkler heads can deliver about 100 gallons of water per minute at 50 psi to "suppress" rather than "control" a fire. The system requires special sprinkler heads, pumps, and larger piping, adding to first costs, but Matlosz is confident it will pay off in the long run.

Looking ahead, Matlosz plans to implement a warehouse management information system this summer that, using barcodes, will provide the precise location and contents of each palette in the warehouse. The software will cut in half the time required to pick an order and will allow the warehouse to handle the "big heavy days" (during a food drive or trade show, for example) when the facility is pushed to capacity, he says.

Also on the drawing board are the expansion of GCFD's Food Rescue program, which picks up and distributes food to agencies the same day, and a second refrigerated "produce mobile" that will deliver fresh fruit and vegetables to agencies in need.

"This facility will allow us to tap every retail store and distribution center in the county," says Matlosz. "We want them to think of us before they throw out food, because we'll find to get it in the hands of the people who need it most."

Fundraising campaign breakdown

Land acquisition $6,100,000
Demolition and environmental cleanup 898,308
New facility construction cost 16,099,000
Rack systems 995,375
Office fixtures, furniture, and equipment 1,095,598
IT and communications systems 716,701
Community kitchens 787,993
Material-handling equipment 1,079,750
Contingency costs 275,128
Moving costs 3,000
Consulting fees 714,887
Interest 370,000
TOTAL $29,135,740

         
 

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