The Palm Beach County Food Bank has been raising money to move to a new facility in Lake Worth Beach, one that leaders say will be both more efficient and more resistant to rats.
Karen Erren leads a tour of the warren of warehouses used by the Palm Beach County Food Bank, and it’s impossible to miss the rat traps.
They’re everywhere. Snap traps and glue traps line corridors inside the facility, where donated water, canned goods and produce are stored. Outside, black plastic poison boxes are stationed at intervals. Splotches of foam, some fresh and yellow, others aged and brown, block entry points along the ground and near the roof.
“We take this very seriously,” said Erren, executive director of the 25-employee organization. “We are all aware of the daily battle.”
It’s a battle the nonprofit Food Bank has been losing in recent months. Rodent invasions of the Lantana facility — which supplies dozens of charities that feed poor schoolchildren, homeless people and the elderly — twice spiraled out of control, according to state inspections, with the warehouse last month being forced to close for a week for cleaning.
The recent rodent invasions have raised the urgency for a facility upgrade — and have led some to grumble about how the charity is being managed. The Food Bank is in the midst of a capital campaign and hopes to move out of its Lantana warehouses and into a new facility in Lake Worth Beach later this year.
“We need to get to a new modern facility, and this is just an example of it,” said Michael Pucillo, a retired attorney who lives in Palm Beach and has been working on the fundraising effort.
In the most recent skirmish between the charity and furry scavengers, state officials closed three of the Food Bank’s four buildings in late January, and the nonprofit was forced to dispose of four pallets of food.
In January, an inspector from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services got a tip about an infestation. The inspector visited the Palm Beach County Food Bank and reported the facility was overrun by rodents.
“A heavy accumulation of rat excreta too numerous to count were observed on the floor, pallets, chairs, metal lifts and metal shelves in the main dry good storage warehouse,” the report said.
The inspector visited in September and found similar issues. After both the September and January inspections, the state official returned and found the Food Bank had cleaned its contaminated facilities and gotten control of the infestations.
The Food Bank already has been raising money to move to a new facility in Lake Worth Beach, one that Erren says will be both more efficient and more resistant to rats.
The buildings leased by the Food Bank were constructed between 1976 and 1983. The structures’ metal siding is corroded in places. Unlike modern warehouses, where trucks back up to elevated docks, the Food Bank’s facility has so-called street-level entrances, a design feature that creates open paths for critters.
“These older buildings have multiple points of entry,” Erren said.
Millions of pounds of food pass through the nonprofit’s warehouses every year. Charities that rely on the Food Bank agree that the nonprofit needs a new home.
“They really need a better structure,” said Laurie George, head of the United Way of Palm Beach County, which pays the Food Bank to give snacks to poor children in after-school programs. “They’re trying to keep it together until they get a new one.”
The Food Bank has raised about $1.5 million to move into another warehouse. The nonprofit has signed a lease for a 28,000-square-foot facility and hopes to move in this year.
The food safety problems also led to whispers that a new facility alone won’t fix the Food Bank’s issues.
Two veterans of the food bank scene said the rodent infestations reveal management shortcomings. Both asked not to be named, citing the bruising politics among local food charities.
“They can’t keep the rats out,” said one veteran advocate.
Another said blaming the buildings’ age amounts to an “excuse” that wouldn’t fly in the private sector. Even one rat incursion would be a firing offense at a private food warehouse — and a marketing disaster for a restaurant.
“If your favorite restaurant failed two inspections, would you go back?” the food expert asked.
From the day the Palm Beach County Food Bank opened in 2012, its managers have struggled to block rodents from the nonprofit’s warehouse.
“We were challenged by it,” recalled Palm Beach County Food Bank founder Perry Borman. “We had it under control, but it was an ongoing issue.”
Keeping the rats at bay required constant vigilance and daily inspections, said Borman, who left the organization several years ago. Rats are relentless foragers and skilled climbers. Workers trimmed trees so branches no longer hung over the buildings. They mowed surrounding grass to give rats less cover.
Borman said he chose the location in Lantana because it was affordable for an upstart charity, not because of the stellar condition of the property.
“Even when I was there, there was a fair amount of corrosion and rust around the bottoms of the buildings,” Borman said.
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The Palm Beach County Food Bank’s warehouse in Lantana was closed in late January after a state inspector found a rat infestation. The facility since has reopened. [JEFF OSTROWSKI/palmbeachpost.com]
However, it’s only in recent months that the Food Bank’s rat problems have worsened to the point that the warehouse has been closed.
Palm Beach County Food Bank is one of six organizations providing take-home food to poor students and their families at more than 50 public schools, said Allison Monbleau, the district’s director of food service.
The food comes from donors and is handed out to needy students on Fridays or before long holiday breaks, when poverty stretches a family’s income the most.
Palm Beach County Food Bank supplies donated food to students at seven elementary schools with high poverty rates. The items going home are pre-packaged non-perishables such as rice, granola bars and canned soups.
The school district’s contract demands that food coming from food pantries meets safety and sanitation standards including that dry storage areas should be “dry, clean, well ventilated and free of pests.”
“This is the first scenario that we know of where a company has been cited by the health department,” said Monbleau when alerted to the Palm Beach County Food Bank violations.
The local Food Bank was launched after complaints that Feeding South Florida, a Broward County organization that has a food bank in Boynton Beach, wasn’t meeting the needs of thousands of poor people in Palm Beach County.
Nearly a decade after its founding, the Palm Beach County Food Bank faces challenges beyond rodents, said Jeff Koons, the former Palm Beach County commissioner who now works on hunger issues. Feeding South Florida has a “monopoly” on federal food aid, he said.
“The fundamental problem with the Palm Beach County food bank is that it doesn’t have access to federal food,” Koons said. “They’re trying to operate in a hostile system, and they don’t have as much food as they should and could. When they go to the new spot, they’re still going to have that problem.”
Staff writer Sonja Isger contributed to this story.