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Larry

Volunteers Make Food Bank Work Possible

Originally posted in The Vacaville Reporter: Whenever I talk about the work of the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, I always explain how important volunteers are, but as we prepared for our volunteer recognition and I looked at the total volunteer hours given this past year, I am even more amazed.  Volunteers gave more than 86,000 hours of their time last year; the equivalent work time of more than 40 staff members.  Volunteers answer our phones, sort food, bag produce and help run our distributions.  They are ambassadors making presentations to groups about the work we do.  Our volunteer Board of Directors takes responsibility for setting the goals of the organization and making sure we provide the services the community needs.  We succeed as an organization because volunteers care about the work we do.

Volunteers are also an inspiration to our staff members.  When we see the time and energy people give to help us feed others, we know we are part of an organization doing the right thing.  I personally feel privileged that I got to know Duncan Miller because of my work at the Food Bank.  Duncan past away this year, but his legacy lives on in the work of the “Milk Duds”, fellow volunteers from Rockville Presbyterian Church who continue to provide food to their neighbors in need.  Duncan started his “Milk Dud” group to help him haul donated milk to his food pantry and other charities in the Fairfield area.  As the volume of donated milk grew, Duncan partnered with the Food Bank to make sure these valuable donations of dairy products were used.  Duncan was a retired pilot who owned classic planes, but his passion for helping others defined his life.  That passion continues in the work of the Rockville Presbyterian “Milk Duds” who continue to serve community members in need.

Volunteers also keep staff motivated by the example they set through their energy and commitment.  Houston Robertson has energy that exceeds what I only wish I had.  She volunteers with us doing outreach to enroll people in the CalFresh program (a quite complicated task) and helps with the distribution of Food for Children boxes at our distribution site in Vallejo.  She is also an incredibly articulate Ambassador for us, speaking to groups about the Food Bank’s work and hopefully persuading them to volunteer as well.  When she is not volunteering for us, Houston does presentations about aging that refer to the memoir she has written.  Did I mention she is also branching out as a stand-up comedian?

Our Volunteer Recognition event took place October 26, celebrating people like Houston and Duncan.  Our work could not be done if we did not have the support our volunteers give.  We live in a community that cares about people in need and gladly gives their time to make a difference.

Community Partnerships Provide Vital Holiday Meals

During the holiday season, people think of gifts, food and family.  Families gather together with the holiday meal being a main part of the celebration.  It is also a time we give presents to each other, sharing with others to show we care for our family and friends.  But the holidays are an especially difficult time for the families served by the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano.  People who need help from us throughout the year struggle as they try to make the holidays a special time for their family.

We at the Food Bank are lucky we live in a community that wants to help.  The Food Bank has been working for nearly forty years to make the holidays a happier time for the families we serve in our community.  We begin our planning in August by purchasing the food we will need for the holiday baskets put together by the agencies we serve.  We work with local food pantries and soup kitchens to determine who they will serve and what they will need from us during the holidays.  We are able to provide fresh fruit and vegetables as well as canned food and turkeys at no cost to the agency.  We raise money so we can buy grocery gift certificates that allow families with limited cooking facilities to obtain the food they need for their holiday meal.  Working with the pantries and soup kitchens in our community, we helped provide 14,000 meals to people last year, and more than 26,600 baskets went to families in need.

The holiday time is the busiest of all at the Food Bank, but we are able to do this work because the community gives.  We have collection barrels in local grocery stores.  Businesses and schools organize food drives.  Scout troops, faith communities, swim teams and motorcycle riders from our local refineries collect food and raise funds.  The number of drives increases every year, but we have nearly 800 locations where people can donate food to their neighbors.  We must receive this community support because we need to distribute over 1.7 million pounds of food and over 900 turkeys during the holiday season.

You have helped make the holiday brighter for the families we serve every year because the community gives generously.  Our committed volunteers help to sort and box the donated food we receive so that the generosity of the community during the holiday season continues to provide for the people we serve into the new year.  Because the community gives so generously, we are able to make a difference in the holiday season and throughout the year.

Senate Must Include “America Gives More Act” in Tax Legislation

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: The United States Senate has the opportunity to provide a powerful boost to charitable organizations working to improve lives and strengthen communities all across the country. In July 2014 the House of Representatives approved the America Gives More Act, landmark legislation that would make three major charitable giving incentives (including donations of food inventory) permanent and reliable for donors of both food and funds.

Here is why the legislation is so important to our Food Bank and our community:  the America Gives More Act would help the farmers, restaurants, retailers, and food manufacturers we work with donate more excess food to those in need. Up until now, the charitable giving provisions in the tax code have been repeatedly extended on a short-term, often erratic basis that limits their impact, as donors cannot consistently rely on the certainty of receiving tax benefits for their generous donations. This is certainly true for small businesses that are relying on the food donation tax deduction to provide a needed incentive to help them establish a regular donation program with food banks. The uncertainty they face with the tax code has a tremendous impact on the amount of food we can bring in to the Food Bank, and in turn, get out to those in need.

In addition, the America Gives Back Act has much needed expansions of the food donation deduction that would allow farmers and ranchers to take the same tax deduction when donating food – a much needed improvement.  Our Food Bank is now distributing 10 million pounds of fresh produce every year – and we anticipate this legislation would help us increase that amount.

The impact of the America Gives More Act on our mission—and those we serve—would be significant. With over 70 billion pounds of wholesome excess food wasted each year, we have a critical opportunity to give food banks and food donors a powerful tool to donate more food.

The U.S. Senate now has the opportunity to include the America Gives More Act in tax legislation that’s expected to be voted on after the election. Doing so would have a significant and positive impact on millions of individuals and families in every community who benefit from the programs and services provided by charitable organizations across the country. To contact your senator and ask them to support this legislation, call the US Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

Hunger Action Month Reaches All Areas of the Nation

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: Hunger Action Month is an opportunity to raise the issue of hunger as one voice across the nation. In September, we reach out to our supporters and volunteers, those who are already concerned about hunger, and ask them to join us in action. We invite them to share about the issue with their friends, family and coworkers who might not even know hunger is a problem. With this collective effort we are able to spread the fact that one in six Americans is at risk of going hungry to many more people than the Food Bank could on our own.  The power of social media, email and face-to-face conversations about why we Turn Orange each September have spread the message to all areas of the community.

Our largest area of support, our volunteers, donors and staff, are all given a simple and clear message. Hunger is everywhere, and we can all do something about it. They are invited to Turn Orange to make a bold statement to start the conversation about hunger. Their enthusiasm spreads to their circle of influence, including those who might not be as involved with hunger relief. Every time they share a postcard with a business or wear their Turn Orange t-shirt, they are standing up for the people we serve and raising awareness.

For the people our supporters reach who do not know as much about hunger in America, we appreciate their willingness to learn. We have statistics based on census data and third-party surveys to show the incredible need across all walks of life. We can reference academic papers and books that discuss poverty and hunger in great detail. But we can also teach people about hunger in their community by taking them to one of our Community Produce Program distributions. People will see a program that distributes fresh fruit and vegetables directly to low-income individuals. Those who visit any of our distributions will see that the people we serve look a lot like them. Families with children need help with groceries; senior citizens need food to supplement their Social Security income. People need food assistance when they live in an area that has expensive housing and a high cost of living.

For those who still do not feel hunger is an issue, I consider it progress if we start a conversation. I received some comments about my article on living on a CalFresh budget. People made worthwhile points about where I shopped and the decisions I made and believed they could shop smarter on a regular basis. They correctly identified that I am a single individual and that I don’t have the patience to dedicate energy to shopping smart. All of these comments point to the fact that we never truly know who might need help with food because anyone could be battling healthcare costs, job loss or have to support an elderly parent. We all know life gets busy and someone might not have the time to shop if they are dealing with multiple jobs, family and kitchen situations or lack of access to healthy food. We hear stories like this every week.

Hunger Action Month is a time for us to empower supports to share why they are passionate about ending hunger in America and ask others to do the same. We thank everyone who took action in September whether you shared or just listened, you have helped move people in every category to consider the issue of hunger in America.

Living on a Limited Food Budget Takes Sacrifice

Originally posted on the Vacaville Reporter: During Hunger Action Month every September the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano joins with people throughout the country to take action to end hunger.  We are working to create a movement that will no longer accept hunger in a society as rich as ours.  Part of this effort is helping people understand why their neighbors are hungry and what we can do to make a difference.  For someone who has been doing this work as long as I have, this is an opportunity to step back from what we do every day and look at why we do what we do.

As part of Hunger Action Month, I have spent this week living on food I bought with the average CalFresh (Food Stamp) allotment.  For this working week, I took my $22.50 ($4.50 per day) and bought what I needed to get by.  A box of store-brand Toasty O cereal was just over two dollars.  Enough yogurt for five lunches was a little over three dollars and I bought bananas to put in the yogurt (bananas are a lot cheaper than strawberries).  For dinner, spaghetti was on sale for 99 cents and pasta sauce was $2.99.  I also bought lettuce, cucumber and a pepper to make a salad my dinner.  I also bought six eggs for $1.75.  A couple ears of corn were pretty cheap, and I was set.

This effort reminded me that living on a low-cost diet can be done, but it takes planning and sacrifice.  I had to make compromises because I really would have preferred strawberries, but I had two pasta dinners with half an ear of corn and two salad dinners with corn as well.  Scrambled eggs were my fifth meal.  Even though my meal selection was deadly boring, I got through a week living on a CalFresh diet, getting a glimpse of what life is like for those who need assistance.  It helped me understand the situation faced by those who do not have the money they need to get the food they need.  Making difficult decisions about where your limited resources go becomes a constant concern for people with low incomes.

Emotionally, it was a strange feeling when the week came to an end.  Rather than feeling proud of myself, I felt as if I had been a bit condescending.  I had only “sampled” being poor, not lived that life.  I lived the CalFresh diet one week, not for months at a time.  I only had my food needs to worry about, not those of my children.  I didn’t have any car problems, medical issues or other problems pull money away from me.  I pretended to be poor in one small way for five days, and on Saturday, I could take my credit card and go out to a dinner at any restaurant I wanted.  Living on a very limited food budget for the long term is much more serious than boring meals. People make hard choices every day between buying food or paying the rent, utilities or putting gas in the car to get to work. These benefits and help from the Food Bank allow a little relief to those hard decisions.

To try the Hunger Challenge for yourself, visit www.foodbankccs.org/hungerchallenge.

Proof of Community Care is Clear in the Audit

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: In spite of what we think when we hear the word, having an audit done is not a negative thing.  As a charitable organization, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano knows we should have outside experts evaluate the way we manage our financial affairs.  We want those we ask to give us food and money to know that we are doing the work they want to support.  Our audits show community members that we are accomplishing the important work people want to see done.

As we are doing the final review of our audit for 2014, it is very helpful to me to look at what we have accomplished.   We establish goals each year and June 30 is when we stop the clock and look at how we have done.   In the last fiscal year, we distributed over 20 million pounds of food and half of those pounds were fresh produce.  Our administrative and fund development costs are less than 4% of our budget.  We have reason to be proud we are running an efficient organization that is meeting the needs of hungry people in our community.

But when I consider where the support comes from that makes our work possible, I am even more proud of the work we do.  If I look at a random list of contacts I have had in the past few months, I see amazing community connections.  We receive support from Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, League of Women Voters, Valero, Shell, Tesoro, Chevron, Janssen, Safeway, Whole Foods, Genentech, and Walmart.

The Food Bank gets help from Solano and Contra Costa County employees, Contra Costa Bar Association (and a bunch of law firms), Realtors in Motion, the County Library, St. Mary’s College, Prophet, the Rossmoor Harvest Festival and St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church’s crab feed.  Food, money and volunteers come from Stanley Middle School, Hercules Middle School, Valhalla School, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Pacific Service Credit Union, Bloomingdales and Forma Gym.

We also receive over half our financial support from individuals.  Some people donate once a year, some people donate every month.  People ask friends to give money to the Food Bank instead of buying them birthday or wedding gifts.  Parents bring their children to the Food Bank warehouse so they can give us the money they raised in their neighborhood.  There is a sense of community that comes from helping each other.

Our audit is a time we look at what we have done, and it shows me that we are part of a community that cares for their neighbors.  When we put together efforts to provide food to those in need, we know that we can count on the strong support provided by our community.  We are able to make a difference because we are part of a community that knows they can work with the Food Bank to get healthy food to their neighbors in need.

Join Effort for a Glimpse of What Those in Need Endure

Originally posted in The Vacaville Reporter: The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano is working to end hunger in our community.  As so often happens, a straightforward idea becomes incredibly complicated when we look at all we need to do to reach that goal.  We know that our main purpose is to provide food to people in need in our community.  We recently participated in a national hunger study with other food banks that are part of Feeding America, the national food bank network.  It’s no great surprise that the study confirms low-income people face an incredibly difficult time providing healthy food for their families.  The people we serve face more difficult circumstances because the Bay Area is an expensive place to live.  People do not have room to negotiate housing or fuel costs, so food is often the area where people scrimp to save money.

Our job at the Food Bank is to make as much healthy food as possible available to low-income people in our community.  We have been able to dramatically increase the amount of fresh produce we provide through our Community Produce Program.  Through this program and our other distribution efforts, half the 21 million pounds of food we distributed last year was fresh produce.  Because we make healthy food easily accessible in low-income neighborhoods, we are having a positive effect on the lives of our neighbors in need.

But hunger in our community cannot be solved solely by the Food Bank.  We have a responsibility to educate the community about the need around us.  In the suburbs, hunger is not as visible as in urban centers.  Those who live in nice housing developments only drive through low-income neighborhoods, and that is probably on a freeway.  So we are asking people during Hunger Action Month in September to slow down and consider what it is like to not have the money you need for food.  During the week of September 15, I ask people to join me living on the amount the average Cal Fresh (food stamp) recipient receives for their food each day, $4.50.  It’s not totally sharing the experience a Cal Fresh recipient lives because I can use my spices and cleaning supplies. I’m not living the life a low-income individual faces every day, but living on the Cal Fresh budget helps me understand the tough decisions low-income people make.

If you can only spend $4.50 a day you realize how expensive fresh fruits and vegetables are.  Processed foods are significantly cheaper, so you ignore the huge amounts of sodium you are consuming and the poor nutrition the packaged food provides.  High fructose corn syrup tastes good and is a cheap part of the packaged food we buy.  Low-income people are trying to make healthy food choices, but they are doing that on a budget of $4.50 each day.  Please join me the week of September 15 so we can better understand the lives our low-income neighbors live.

 

Ending Hunger Requires a Community Effort

Originally posted in The Vacaville Reporter: In order to end hunger, there needs to be a movement that says hunger is not acceptable.  Social change is a gradual curve, but movements change the way we see things as a society.  While we are far from perfect in every area, we have seen significant progress in many areas:  women’s issues, racial issues, LGBT issues.

The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano is working with our partner food banks in our national network, Feeding America, to create a movement that says the existence of hungry people in our community is not acceptable.  The month of September is Hunger Action Month, and we are trying to motivate people to take action against hunger.  Hunger Action Month is built around “Go Orange”.  Why orange? Orange is the official color of hunger relief and makes a bold statement to start the conversation about hunger. We want people to talk to their neighbors, talk to their faith congregation, talk to the people they play cards with about the issue of hunger.  We need to understand that hunger is no more acceptable than racism, sexism or homophobia.  Social change begins with events that begin conversations among people who care.

Help Contra Costa and Solano counties Turn Orange for Hunger Relief during Hunger Action Month this September! This is a great way to mobilize everyone in our community — in America — to take action in the fight against domestic hunger, generating strong and sustainable engagement.  We see Hunger Action Month as a way for the community to come together to take action to end hunger.

We have a vision that someday soon there will not be hungry people in our community.  Social change will take place and we will not accept hunger.  We will understand that hungry children don’t learn.  We will recognize that people who don’t eat a healthy diet have poor health.  We will understand that there is enough food for everyone and there is no reason for hunger to exist in our community.  I look forward to the future when people think it was a strange and different time when hunger was tolerated.

Growth in Donations Meets Growing Need for Service

Originally posted in The Vacaville Reporter: Over the last two years, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano has seen a 26% increase in the number of people we serve, due to people struggling from the recession and an increase in programs available through the Food Bank. The significant increase of produce available to the Food Bank has been a dramatic change in the type and amount of food we distribute allowing people to more easily receive nutritious produce in the areas where they live.  At the same time, the increases we have seen in donations of perishable food at the retail level have grown significantly to meet the need as well.

The Food Bank has transformed over recent years from providing emergency help at the end of the month when food and funds have run out, to becoming a support system to help families make ends meet. Improving the nutritional value of food available to people through the Food Bank and our partner agencies has and will continue to help meet this need. Last year, 50% of what we distributed was fresh produce which is often too expensive for people facing economic challenges.

The California Association of Food Banks understood how marketing orders keep cosmetically imperfect produce from being sold; they also found that there was a secondary market for that produce.  Growers got paid a small amount for unmarketable produce when it was sold for animal feed or juice.  By appealing to growers to help us feed those in need, we got access to oranges at the same price the juice people were paying.   We showed the growers that we did not interfere with their markets and we made a difference in the lives of thousands of people in need.  The persuasive work of food banks convinced the apple growers, pear growers, and potato and onion growers that they should donate too.  We will continue to work on increasing the amount of fresh produce available to us because it is now more than half the food we give out.

The work of Feeding America, our national network, has increased both the quality and amount of food available to us from retail stores.  The grocery industry recently made a major operational change, with Walmart, Target, Sam’s Club and Save Mart stores agreeing to donate food to Feeding America food banks.  The grocery industry is justly concerned about the liability they would face if food donations they made were improperly handled, so Feeding America worked for years with the grocery industry to develop standards Feeding America food banks meet for safe food handling.  All food banks and the agencies they serve undergo Serve Safe food safety training.  In addition to this training, we provide the agencies with which we partner freezer blankets and scales so they can properly record the donations they pick up from local stores.

The stores that donate to us are able to be greener by eliminating the waste they would have produced.  When meat is coming to its “sell by” date, the store freezes the meat until it is picked up by one of the properly trained agencies that work with our Feeding America food bank.  We have developed a system that has member agencies serving stores as often as they have food donations available.   In this way, local stores are following the lead their national headquarters has developed with Feeding America.  On a local level we get the high-quality food we so desperately need while our local grocery stores are eliminating waste while they work to help feed their neighbors in need.

Thanks to this significant growth in donations of fresh produce and retail donations of perishable food items we are able to provide and excellent source of nutrition to the increased number of people we serve.

Ready and Willing to Speak About Fighting Hunger

Originally posted in The Vacaville Reporter: As often sited, public speaking is the most common fear.  People have anxiety attacks when they think of making a speech to an audience, large or small.  When I became Executive Director of the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, I had to learn to speak before groups to help us build the community of support that is necessary to our work.  The fact I have become as comfortable as I am when I speak to people about the Food Bank’s work is because I believe so strongly in what we do.

When I try to persuade people to join us in our work I am not selling them a vision, I am offering them an opportunity to make a difference.  I believe that people understand there is no reason in a society as rich as ours that anyone should be hungry.  With so much evidence of the need for hunger relief and stories we hear in the lines of our distributions, we see the problem often. We also know there is a solution.

It is my job to share the stories of our clients and explain to as many people as possible how they can help.  I speak to faith communities, service clubs, schools, and businesses.  I have talked to people in office suites and in factories.  In my experience, if people understand that they can help by volunteering and giving food or money, they are happy to do so.  Our task at the Food Bank is to reach out to those who can help so they understand how that can make a difference.

One of the ways we reached out to our supporters was organizing a wine and food event at GV Cellars in Fairfield on August 3.  G V Cellars provided their space and provided a great deal on wine because they believe in our mission. MagPies Catering also went above and beyond with the delicious food they provided at a reduced cost.  Westbound 80 performed classic rock music, and also donated to the cause. Not only did this event help us generate revenue to support our work, but, as importantly, it helped us connect with the people who make our work possible.

The Community Produce Program truck was set up at the event to show how much fresh produce their donation can provide.  A display showing the huge amount of healthy food we are able to purchase with $100 surprised and delighted guest.  When people understand how the Food Bank works, and understand how effective we are with their donations, I believe they will continue to help us feed those in need in our community.  It is my job to help people understand, so please, invite me to your next club meeting, service group or class. Either through Facebook, Twitter, or face-to-face, we will continue to tell our story so people understand how they can help.