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The Food Bank of Western New York started with a shoestring budget 20 years ago. Today it is the most successful food bank program in the nation, according to organizers of the eighth annual Check Out Hunger campaign, which starts today.

"We had early disappointments and no money, only ideas," said Carolyn B. Thomas, former Food Bank president and current chairwoman emeritus. "We struggled without a dime. It's been a beautiful trip."

Organizers hope the trip and the donations continue with this year's fund-raising campaign. From today through Feb. 26, shoppers at Jubilee Foods, Quality Markets, Tops Friendly Markets and Wegmans Food Markets can add $1.47 to their grocery bill. All of the money donated goes to the Food Bank. Buffalo Bills coach Wade Phillips and his wife, Laurie, are chairing the campaign.

Since 1992, local shoppers have contributed more than $1 million to the program, "making it the most successful food bank campaign in the country," said Clem Eckert, the Food Bank's executive director, who uses stadiums and arenas to describe the organization's reach.

"The Food Bank services more than 91,000 Western New Yorkers. That's a sellout crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium and about five sellout crowds at Marine Midland Arena," Eckert said. All that amounts to 926,000 meals per month.

"These are alarming statistics by themselves; however, the real eye-opener is that 40 percent of these meals are for children," he said.

Changes in the way the food donors do business could threaten the organization's ability to provide meals to hungry people if it weren't for programs like Check Out Hunger, Food Bank representatives said at Tuesday's kick-off event.

"We have primarily relied on food distributors, manufacturers and retailers, but that base is shrinking, and they're getting smarter," said Anthony DeRose, Food Bank trade relations specialist. His job is to go outside the normal channels and come up with innovative ways for non-traditional donors -- like school systems -- to contribute.

"When manufacturers produce excess product or have outdated products or stuff they can't sell, we get it," DeRose said. "But now most of them are producing closer to what they need instead of extra, and technology has helped them be more efficient."

Good news for manufacturers. "Bad news for us, but that's why Check Out Hunger is so important. It relies on the general public for donations," he said.

If public support over the last two decades is any indication, the Food Bank won't have anything to worry about, Thomas said. "When I look at our (warehouse) on 91 Holt St. and remember where we came from, I know the people of Buffalo have really supported us."

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