From Radical to Reality:
The Bulgarian Food Bank Creates Positive Change

Bulgarian Food Bank_unloading truck

The path to food bank development in Bulgaria was anything but easy. The obstacles were many and, in the beginning, the believers were few. But seven years in the making, The Bulgarian Food Bank (BFB) has gone from a radical idea to a society-changing reality.

BFB launched in June 2012, and in December 2012 became the newest certified member of The Global FoodBanking Network. In its first year, BFB has distributed 120 tons of food to more than 5,500 people in 10 cities.

The story in Bulgaria begins in a time and place where the concept of food banking was practically unheard of. In post-Soviet society, charity work and volunteerism were not embraced by the public. In addition to cultural barriers, the legal landscape was a hindrance to companies wishing to donate food.

How did change come about? With a new, positive mindset focused on opportunities instead of challenges; education and training in food bank development and operations; lots of creative problem solving; and the dedicated support of those who believe in the cause.

“Seeing how easily a solution for both food waste and hunger can be found and how food banking directly impacts local communities continues to give us the strength and will to overcome any obstacles that come our way,” said Maya Kalcheva, BFB Executive Director.

Maya and Chris Rebstock, GFN’s Senior Vice President of Network Development, reflect on the development of BFB, share examples of BFB’s innovative food rescue efforts and look ahead to the future.

Pivotal moments in the development of the Bulgarian Food Bank

Chris Rebstock and Maya Kalcheva in Bulgaria
Chris Rebstock (center) pictured with Maya Kalcheva (right) during one of his site visits to Bulgaria.

Chris: In 2005, eight Bulgarians from various organizations, including the Bulgarian Red Cross, American Red Cross, and the Bulgarian food industry, came to the US for an intensive, two-week training program to learn the ins and outs of food banking. That visit was key because the team returned to Bulgaria with new, practical knowledge and the motivation to bring food banking to the country. Leadership of FORA Community Development Foundation, Marina Brakalova and Methody Methodieff, undertook a commitment to adapt the concept to the Bulgarian environment.

Maya: After that visit to the US, Chris, representing GFN, visited Bulgaria on several occasions to help support FORA Community Development Foundation, the Bulgarian foundation undertaking the food bank development effort. GFN helped us to define the concept of food banking to representatives of government, the private sector and several major NGOs. This was incredibly vital in a community where food banking was yet-to-be-understood or welcomed.

GFN has been one of our most loyal and resourceful partners. Since 2007 the GFN team has provided us with yearly visits, valuable advice, funding from Kraft and Cargill, and training at the Food Bank Leadership Institute (FBLI) each year.

Chris: In mid-2010 several factors helped the movement. Among them was a change in the make-up of Bulgarian Parliament and the administration, and the persistent efforts of FORA Community Development Foundation to promote food banking through frequent media engagements. These things set the stage for a key player — a new government agency, the Bulgarian Food Safety Agency (BFSA) — to get involved in the project.

Maya: That’s when things really took off for us. In 2011, Methody Methodieff from FORA Community Development Foundation attended the Food Bank Leadership Institute and brought Ventsislava Tasseva, the Deputy Director of the BFSA. The Deputy Director was a skeptic about the viability of food banking in Bulgaria. During the week-long Institute, her thinking was transformed, and she returned to Bulgaria as a leading advocate for the establishment of the food bank.

Chris: Bringing the Deputy Director of BFSA to FBLI was a critical move. She returned to Bulgaria incredibly enthused and shared what she learned at FBLI with the Minister of Agriculture. Equally as enthused, The Minister of Agriculture began communicating publicly that “the state is going to create a food bank.” This generated tremendous awareness and positive attention.

Around the same time, FORA Community Development Foundation created The Food Banking Planning Forum to generate additional awareness and activation. Establishing the Forum, and adding Maya Kalcheva to staff the work of the Forum accelerated the effort. The team conducted very effective feasibility research on organizations doing feeding programs, the food industry, and logistics issues.

Maya: At the end of 2011, we were ready! We conducted a pilot effort and delivered one ton of food during the holidays. We’ve been operating and expanding ever since. We were thrilled that, one year after this test launch, we received certification from GFN.

Turning challenges into opportunities

Maya: There are no incentives to donate food in Bulgaria, so finding supporters who believed in the mission enough to provide funds and other assistance was essential from the very beginning. The first months we worked with the establishment funds and we were constantly searching for financial support.

In October 2012 we were fortunate to receive funding from the America for Bulgaria Foundation, a group of Americans who support Bulgaria, and have committed to donating US$490,000 for  the next three years to cover our operating budget. In addition, we have support from various businesses, including Kraft Foods, Societe Generale Express Bank, and a number of domestic Bulgarian companies. 

The legal environment concerning food donations is not advantageous for food banks and companies that would like to support food banking. However, our strong supporter, BFSA, is working with us to change that. Together we drafted food safety requirements for feeding agencies, and we conduct site visits and trainings together. For the past nine months we have constantly promoted the fact that it is more expensive to donate food in Bulgaria than to throw it away. We organized a couple of round tables with representatives from the business community, NGOs and the government. The BFSA suggested an amendment to the Food Law defining what a food bank is and creating an alternative to food waste. We expect this amendment to be adopted in early 2013, and believe it will dramatically impact our ability to source more food and scale operations.

Inspired and innovative food sourcing

Potatoes rescued by BFB

Tons of potatoes

Maya: We received 47 tons of potatoes from BFSA that had been confiscated at the Bulgarian-Romanian border. The potatoes were safe for consumption, but could not be sold. That’s a lot of potatoes, but we managed to transport and unload it all at our warehouse with the help of 15 volunteers. We donated half the load to the jails in Bulgaria. A local processing company offered to repack the remaining 23.5 tons into smaller packs so it will be easier for us to distribute the remaining potatoes.

St. Nicholas Day

Maya: In Bulgaria, St. Nicolas Day is celebrated by eating fish on December 6. This year, the government donated all the perfectly edible safe fish that had been confiscated as a result of illegal fishing. With the help of our partners, we managed to distribute about five tons of fresh fish over four days time. We were able to reach about 4,500 people and their families in 10 cities.

Fish rescued by BFB

Saving food from a supermarket

Maya: One of the biggest malls in Sofia had a fire and their cooling system was down for more than 48 hours. The Piccadilly Supermarket (part of the Delhaize Group) in the mall had frozen goods that would spoil. Working together with our staff and volunteers, we saved about six tons of frozen goods including bread, buns, and croissants. Over the next two weeks we managed to bake those items with the help of our partner, Viveta Company, and distribute them throughout Sofia.

Looking ahead…

Maya: In 2013, we’re planning to expand and begin to regularly serve a larger geographical region, distribute meals to more than 5,000 people on a regular basis, and secure more partners, funding and resources so we can build at least three more regular programs for food sourcing and food distribution.

Chris: There have been so many changes since my first trip to Bulgaria. People are aware of the food bank and they continue to get more and more volunteers. The Government is looking at the potential for funding, and this is a very big advancement.

Key supporters

Maya: The nine founders are: FORA Community Development Foundation, Kraft Bulgaria, Association of Meat Processors in Bulgaria, Tandem Ltd (a meat processor), Piccadilly (Delhaize Group), Bella Bulgaria (a food producer), Bio Bulgaria (organic food producer), Sagitta Company, and Neterra ltd. (telecom).

Other supporters include: Kaven Orbico, a logistics company that provided us with a warehousing space and service our donations. Slatina - Bulgarplod wholesale market gave us a warehousing space and the opportunity to run our fresh produce program among the traders and companies who operate from their facility.

Pro bono services come from Chronica accountants, Saatchi & Saatchi and Publicis marketing communications, Schoenherr legal services, and PricewaterhouseCoopers tax support and advising.

We also have some prominent media supporters such as Economedia Group, The National Radio, bTV and TV7, both national TV stations, Gorichka.bg, and SofiaLive.bg.

Learn more about the Bulgarian Food Bank

In this video from the 2012 Food Bank Leadership Institute, Marina Brakalova of BFB speaks about the people in Sofia who are hungry. It’s not always who you think.

Bulgarian Food Bank website: bgfoodbank.org

Bulgarian Food Bank on facebook

Bulgarian Food Bank on Twitter: @bgfoodbank

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