The need for food assistance is growing in North Alabama

Shirley Scofield calls being CEO of the Food Bank of North Alabama “kind of like a second career for me.”

“I was a journalist for many years,” she told Lede. “I worked at newspapers in Mississippi, Florida and California. I loved it and did it for about 25 years. I was assistant city editor, deputy city editor. I was in California and I just needed to get back and be closer to my family in Alabama.

Originally from South Alabama, Schofield had family in Huntsville.

“It was a better area for me to try to find something new,” she said.

Scofield wanted to work for a non-profit and began volunteering in the area. She saw an ad for a position at the Food Bank of North Alabama.

“I didn’t know what a food bank was,” Scofield said. “I’ve never heard of them before. But I applied for the position and got it. I was the first in-store donation coordinator here in 2014.”

Scofield said she never expected to become the food bank’s CEO and took the position on an interim basis after the organization’s executive director left.

Scofield now leads the organization permanently. The North Alabama Food Bank provides more than 10 million meals a year to those in need, a number that is growing.

Can you talk about your role as CEO?

I think we have a really good team here. The food bank has gone through tremendous growth and some huge challenges with the pandemic.

We’ve been able to expand our reach and what we’ve been able to do in the community. We have evolved. I see myself as kind of trying to keep my eye on the prize, trying to see the vision. I try to work on our strategic plan and make sure we have the people to deliver what needs to be done for the community.

Sometimes I’m probably a little more involved than other CEOs. The other day we had some watermelons that had gone bad so I was out helping everyone get the watermelons out.

We are one of the smaller food banks in Feeding America’s national network. You get to do a little bit of everything. I can go to the food pantry and help with that. I can help people when they come here. I’m also sitting here working on budgets.

I’m really happy that this position gives me the opportunity to do a little bit of everything and stay connected to our work.

Where does the food bank get its food from?

We get our food from several different channels. Much of it is donated through grocery store partners. We work with about 100 grocery stores in our community. They give us food that is perfectly edible but cannot be sold for some reason. The packaging may be damaged. It may be close to the date, which means the best buy date is about to expire. That doesn’t mean the food isn’t good anymore. It just means they can no longer sell it.

Sometimes we get a lot of food at the grocery store, but they just don’t sell that item anymore. Sometimes they’ll have a campaign for an item that isn’t selling well, so they’ll donate it to us.

We also get food from a program called TEFAP, which is the Emergency Food Program. It’s a federal program. The federal government is working with farmers to help stabilize some of the commodities and produce prices. The government will come in and buy them. This food, once purchased, goes to food banks across the country. A large amount of our food comes from the USDA through the TEFAP program.

Of course we have donations from the public. We also have funds that we turn into purchased food that we provide to the community.

Talk about the people the food bank serves?

We serve a whole range of people. We cater from young families, toddlers, to the elderly and everyone in between. I think everyone realizes, especially after going through the pandemic, that so many of us are one paycheck away from really needing help.

We help people who work full time but are not making enough, only making minimum wage or just above it. They don’t do enough to provide the food their family needs or the healthy, nutritious food their family needs.

We work with elderly people who never expected to need help from us. They worked all their lives, did everything they thought was necessary. But then one of the spouses dies, or they just can’t work anymore, or they don’t have enough savings, they need our help.

There is no specific person to help. But I think there are a lot of misconceptions about who needs food assistance. It’s from single parents, it’s multi-generational families where there will be grandchildren living with their grandparents as well as their parents.

We have seen such an increase. One of the things we’re trying to do is take some of the stigma out of asking for food assistance. Everyone needs food and everyone should have it. They must have access to healthy and nutritious food to ensure they are successful.

You can’t succeed if you’re hungry. You can’t learn if you’re a child. You can’t do well at work. Sometimes it’s hard to get motivated to go to work if you don’t have enough food. We just want to make sure we’re helping our community in this way.

We do a lot more school pantries. There is such a connection between learning and not having enough food. We work with a school in Geraldine, it’s quite a rural community. One of the first things a principal asks if a child is sent to his office is if they have anything to eat today.

The other day we had an elderly woman, I think she lives in Johnson Towers, we were doing distribution there. We had some melon and some other fresh produce. She just cried over the cantaloupe because she had gone to the grocery store earlier in the week and had to turn down the cantaloupe because it cost $5. She said, “I just didn’t have it in my budget.” We came a few days later and had a cantaloupe that she could eat, and she was so grateful.

If someone needs help, what should they do?

They can just come here. But we are primarily a distribution center. Most of the food we give out to the community goes out through our partners and those are partners like Manna House, Downtown Rescue Mission and many church pantries in the 11 counties we serve.

When someone comes to us, we certainly help them. We provide them with the food we have on hand. We try to give them other resources as well. There may be a food pantry much closer to their neighborhood that they can get more consistent help from.

But if people need help, they can come directly to us. Or go to our website, we have a food search engine. They can enter their zip code and it will tell them where the food pantry is that is closest to where the home is. And it will also say what time they are open. It really is an easy way to find help.

Thursday is Thanksgiving. Is Foodbank or its partners doing anything for the holiday?

We have a lot of partners doing things. We usually try to help them as much as we can. We purchase specific holiday boxes. They can be used for Thanksgiving or Christmas. We make sure they are available.

We try to make sure we have a good amount. This is one of our busiest times of the year. So we try to make sure we have extra food available for our partners to distribute. Many distros really ramp up this time of year.

I just talked to a group yesterday and they actually have a waiting list just for regular food assistance that they do. Many of the groups we work with are seeing an increase, sometimes double what they served in the past.

I think everyone cares about having enough food on hand to be able to serve what the community needs, especially during the holidays. You want to make sure people have something extra.

For more information, visit: Food Bank of North Alabama – Food Bank of North Alabama (

Scott Turner reports from Huntsville for Lede.

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