Author Archive

Larry

Community Members are Connected in a Variety of Ways to Our Efforts to Feed People

Originally posted in The Vacaville Reporter:  Nearly four decades ago, when I started working at the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano I didn’t realize how large a role the organization would play in the community. As the years have passed, the Food Bank has become a well-recognized resource for helping those in need in the community. Because of that recognition, people lend their support to our mission to end hunger.

Community members are connected in a variety of ways to our efforts to feed people. For those who have the time to do hands-on work, we ask volunteers to sort food, bag produce and assist with our remote distributions. Distributing nearly twenty million pounds of food means we need to address logistical issues, including trucking, food storage and running efficient distribution programs. For all these tasks, we depend on volunteers.

We also rely on volunteers to help us obtain the food we need. Food drives are organized year round because hunger exists year round. Our food drives range from the major effort organized by the National Association of Letter Carriers every May or the Boy Scouts each November to food collections done by individuals. Gardeners grow extra vegetables in their back yard to share with their neighbors in need. Businesses organize food collections as a way to give back to their community. We receive over a million pounds of food every year from a generous community, while we engage people in helping end hunger.

We are also lucky that a generous community helps us raise the money we need to distribute the food we gather. Gathering the support we need also goes from large to small, with the total effort being important to our work. We organize events like golf tournaments, motorcycle runs, or Uncorked, a food and wine afternoon at GV Cellars in Fairfield on August 3. Events like Uncorked bring people together to help the Food Bank, creating a sense of community around a common cause. Giving to charitable causes is an important part of many people’s lives, and they know the Food Bank plays an important role in improving our community.

Many people learn the habit of giving early in life. I talked to someone yesterday who shared the story of their nine year old daughter who sold wrist bands to her friends to raise money to buy food for the Food Bank. Her parents and grandparents matched the money she raised, helping her buy more food to bring to the Food Bank. When she brought the food to us, she saw how her donation became part of a bigger effort to help. Our work is possible because we connect with those in the community who want to see an end to hunger.

Annual Report Change Shows Growth of Food Bank, Local Need

Originally posted in The Vacaville Reporter: Someone was going through some old materials they found in storage and brought me an annual report from 1998, sixteen years ago. Annual reports and financial audits are snapshots in time that define how an organization is providing service in the community, so it was pretty astounding to see where we were then versus where we are now.

I was amazed at how much we have grown as an organization. In 1998, we had 32 employees; today we have 63. (Eleven of the people who worked for us in 1998 still are with us today.) We have been able to increase our services because the support we receive from the community has increased significantly. As an example, in 1998 the support we receive from individuals was one million dollars and we now receive five million dollars annually.

The Food Bank needs that increased support because we have expanded our work to meet the need in ways we never dreamed we would be doing in 1998. At that time, we had our Senior Food Program, Food Assistance Program and Food for Children program as the only direct service we provided in the community. Because of the collaborative work of food banks through the California Association of Food Banks, we now have access to supply of fresh produce through packing sheds in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys that’s only limited by the amount of support we receive to purchase it. Because this fresh food is available to us, we established the Farm 2 Kids program that distributes food to students in low-income schools. In the past two years, we developed the Community Produce Program that takes fresh produce to over fifty distribution sites throughout Contra Costa and Solano counties. I would have been surprised in 1998 to know that someday we would provide over ten million pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables in one year to low-income people in our community.

The reason we must keep focused on our work is because the need continues to grow. We were serving 58,000 people a month is 1998 and have seen that number increase to 149,000 today. At some of our Food Assistance Program sites for example, we have seen the number of people coming increase fourfold. We are sending two trucks filled with food to some of the sites we serve because nearly 600 people come for the food we give. With our increased efficiency, staff and community support, we are able to meet that high demand and outreach to those who may not know help with food is available.

I am proud of the programs we have maintained and strengthened, as well as the new programs we have initiated. Everything we do, from distributing more fresh produce to helping enroll people in CalFresh is dedicated to getting food to those in need. Our supporters should be proud as well. Because of them, we are able to be of service to the increased number of people who need us.

Water Situation Affects Fresh Fruits, Vegetable Availability for Those in Need

Originally posted in The Vacaville Reporter: The drought we are currently experiencing raises serious questions about how we use a finite resource.  The Mediterranean climate we enjoy means that we have long summers where no rain falls.  In normal years, the snow that falls in the Sierra Nevada mountains has been our reservoir and provides the water we need in the summer.  Much of the water is needed for agriculture because California has some of the most productive soil in the world.  Our water system works well as long as snow falls in the mountains, but when a drought takes place, competition begins for the limited water available.

Residential consumers are urged to limit the amount of water they use.  We may have green lawns and swimming pools, but many homes have drip irrigation, low-water landscaping, low-flow toilets and other technology to make effective use of the water they use.  There are debates about how you compute the numbers, but urban water use is less than 20% of the total consumed in California.  One third of the water used in the state goes for environmental purposes; making sure rivers have adequate fresh water to support a healthy environment.  More than half the water the state consumes is used for agricultural purposes.

Residential consumers often wish that water could be saved in the agricultural and environmental areas.  Some people argue that using “environmental” water to preserve fish should take second place to water for agriculture.  The looming battle over the bypass tunnels proposed to move fresh water from rivers above the San Joaquin/Sacramento delta raises concerns about the impact that action would have on the environment of our local area.  If we decide that environmental and urban uses are most important, what does that mean for agriculture?

Agriculture is a major part of California’s economy.  California farms and ranches generate over $42 billion worth of revenue.  Of that revenue, over $18 billion is food we export to other countries.  Over 11% of the food produced in the United States comes from California, and over half the fruits, nuts and vegetables consumed in the United States are grown in California.  Our climate and our water make a major contribution to California’s economy and the nation’s food supply.

The work of the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano is possible to a certain extent because we are located in California. Because food grown in California sometimes does not meet marketing standards, the Food Bank can reclaim that food, allowing us to provide fresh produce to people in need in our community.  Because of the drought, some of the crops we received in past years are not available to us currently, plus everything we receive costs more. Fresh fruits and vegetable prices will go up an estimated 6% in the coming months according to the federal government.  In order to get the food we need, we depend on agriculture, and agriculture depends on water. Difficult decisions need to be made both by government and at home as we decide how we can best use the water on which we all depend, so people of all income levels have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Provide Incentives, But Let Them Make Their Own Decisions

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: Debates over what food and beverages are good for us and what are not seems like a worthwhile discussion when what we consume impacts the overall public health. The truth is we are capable of making our own decisions based on available public knowledge. Since I have spent most of my life providing food to low-income people, I have some emotional feelings about what people say when they propose that CalFresh benefits (Food Stamps) cannot be used to buy soda.  I saw a recent plan that talks about incentivizing CalFresh recipients to buy fresh fruit and vegetable by providing a rebate if they use their benefits to buy fresh produce.  The same plan also says however, that people will not be able to use their benefits to buy soda.  My lack of comfort is that instead of focusing on providing low-income people an incentive to spend their benefits on “good food”, people want to prohibit others from buying “bad food.”

The feeling is this is ok because CalFresh recipients are receiving benefits we as tax payers help provide.  I think there is an assumption that people who are poor are somehow less than those of us who are not, so they need to meet the standards we set for their behavior.  We already say CalFresh benefits can only be used to purchase food, not soap or toilet paper (two fairly essential parts of a healthy life I think) so taking it much further becomes an issue of judgment.

Part of the reason CalFresh benefits were changed from Food Stamp coupons to an ATM-like card was to diminish the stigma recipients felt as they went through the grocery line.  We have all heard the theoretical story from someone who saw a Food Stamp recipient in a grocery line buying food “I could never afford” with their CalFresh benefits.  Part of this judgment may not even be based on reality. A CalFresh benefit of just $100 won’t go very far to buy groceries for the month. Careful planning becomes essential and many recipients are actually making do with affordable basics like dry beans, frozen vegetables and pasta. Because people are poor, we somehow feel it is their fault and we somehow assume it is because of the bad decisions they make. In reality, we hear stories every day of losing work to disability, the economy, or the added financial burden of taking care of an aging parent.

I encourage you to try it for yourself. Take the Hunger Challenge to live on just $4.50 of groceries a day to see how challenging it is to nourish yourself. Find the guidelines at www.foodbankccs.org/hungerchallenge and let me know how it goes.

I have a support system that saves me if I fall on hard luck, but for some the Food Bank and CalFresh may be the safety net keeping their family from going hungry. We can, and do inform the public about healthy eating and offer nutritious choices and education in our Food Bank programs, but believe that our clients should be treated with the dignity to make their own decisions.

“Simply stated, SNAP works” – We Need to Continue to Invest in Our Future

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter:  Mathmatica Policy Research did a study that led them to conclude “simply stated, SNAP works”.  (The SNAP which stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was formerly known as the food stamp program and is known as CalFresh in California).  Mathmatica’s research demonstrated that because they participated in the program, children had significant improvements in their consistent access to food, also known as their “food security”.

The Mathmatica food security study surveyed 3000 families and compared the status of families newly-enrolled in the program with those who had been in the program for six or seven months.  In the initial part of the study, 37% of newly-enrolled families were food insecure, while those who had been on the program six months or more were at 27%.  When they checked the newly-enrolled group after six months they had seen their food insecurity decline from 37% to 25%.  This type of research shows the wisdom of feeding those in need in our community.

If an individual is food insecure they cannot find enough food or purchase enough food for themselves.  In a society as rich as ours, with huge agricultural surpluses, there is no reason an individual should be food insecure.  More importantly, there is no reason a child should be in that position.  Increases in SNAP/CalFresh that were part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) were eliminated in November of 2013.  After that, Congress cut $8 billion in funding for the program over the next ten years.  Because of these actions, average benefits for recipients will drop below $130 a month.  I know there are some people who can make that work, but I also know from my attempts to live on the average CalFresh budget for a week, that the benefits are not enough.   These budget cuts will have a negative impact on people’s ability to feed their children.

My father grew up during the Great Depression and he told me stories of receiving blocks of cheese and bags of sugar from the government.  I don’t think he was ever hungry, but he lived in a house where concern about the next meal was a part of their life.  He saved every scrap of leftovers until the day he died and his choices in the grocery store always were always based on price.  I think we are in danger that the budget decisions that are being made are creating a generation that will be as food insecure as those who lived through the Great Depression.

It’s frustrating that we are cutting a program that provides hungry people the ability to get food.  People are on the program for a short period of time (average of nine months) and research shows that the effects are positive, whether you measure improved nutrition or food security.  By giving people SNAP/CalFresh benefits, we are making sure that our children receive the food they need.  We are making an investment in the future of our society when we help hungry families.

Changing the Way We Eat, Beginning With Our Children

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: Change is never easy. We all know people who tout their flexibility and their openness to change, but lock themselves up when change begins. (Other people of course, not us.) At the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano it is interesting to watch this take place around a subject everyone knows needs to be addressed, improving the nutrition of our children.

Obesity has risen dramatically among younger people (and adults too) over the past twenty years meaning that diabetes and other diseases are becoming a major health problem for our society. The astronomical costs of treating those diseases, as well as the other problems we face as an obese society can be prevented by changing what we eat. Most of us recognize we eat too many fats, too much sugar, too many empty calories. In principle we all understand that we should eat more fresh fruit and vegetables and more whole grains.

If we are going to take steps to implement these changes, one of the most effective ways is to start with our children through the school lunch program. By providing students with a healthy lunch, we can give them good food to eat once a day as well as helping to educate them about how good food tastes. Seems simple, right?

In fact, changing school lunches has become a major political issue. The School Nutrition Association, a lobbying group that focuses on school lunches has switched its position from supporting the changes recently implemented in nutrition standards to now asking for relief from those standards. There are anecdotes about the disruption the new standards have caused that raise legitimate concerns. Stories are told of schools in the Southwest having whole grain tortillas thrown away because they are not culturally acceptable. Applesauce is thrown away as are fresh fruit and vegetables. And of course, funding is not adequate for these districts to provide increasingly expensive healthy food.

On the other side, school districts in rural Georgia share stories of how they were able to move from fried chicken (a Southern staple) to herb-baked chicken that kids love. Locally grown grits are one of the most popular items for their school breakfast program. Here in our community, some school districts are purchasing fresh produce from local farms, providing healthy locally-grown food to their students.

But beyond these operational issues, on the political side, a group named the Coalition for Sustainable School Meals Programs has pushed Congress to designate pizza with tomato sauce as a vegetable. The goal of providing healthy food to our children gets complicated because providing school lunches is a multi-billion dollar program.

While a few people may defend the status quo of the school lunch program, most agree that change is necessary for the good of our children. For the sake of our health, we need to see a change in our individual diets, and that will only come about through education. We need to begin with our children.

Food Bank Offers Healthy Food Choices

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: It’s no great secret that the way we Americans eat is killing us. According to the Center for Disease Control, 35% of adults 21 years of age and older were obese in 2012. The percentage of adults who are overweight (which includes those who are obese) was 69%. The frightening fact is that even our children are obese, with 12% to 18% classified as obese depending on their age. Diabetes is also a significant problem nationwide with over $28 billion being spent on diabetes treatment in California in 2012.

These problems are caused by the diets we eat. Fast food, huge portions and enormous amounts of sugar lead to obesity and diabetes. If we want to address these health issues, people will need to change the way they eat. How to do this is a complicated question. There are those who would like to mandate what people eat. Some people want to begin with individuals who receive CalFresh (food stamp) benefits. New York City tried to ban the use of these funds to buy high-sugar drinks, but ran into resistance from soda manufacturers and some civil libertarians. The New York City plan to control what food recipients purchase was overruled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Instead of mandating what people can or cannot eat, public health advocates want to generate change by making healthy food more economical and attractive. Along with programs that distribute fresh produce, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano provides access to recipes and a nutrition educator. We are also able to distribute coupons to the low-income individuals we serve so they can purchase fresh produce at farmers markets. The California Market Match Consortium was created to distribute funds obtained from the California Department of Food and Agriculture and private donors. We let the people we are helping enroll in the CalFresh program know that they can obtain Market Match coupons to use at the farmers markets. As a bonus, people receive $5 worth of bonus scrip for every $10 they spend at the farmers market. This program can grow through a $100 million allocation in the 2014 federal Farm Bill and a $2.75 million per year (for five years) Market Match Nutrition Incentive fund included in a California Assembly bill.

The Food Bank also distributes farmers market coupons to low-income senior citizens through our Senior Food Program. Funds from the California Department of Food and Agriculture provide us with $20 booklets of coupons that seniors can use at their local farmers market. Over 1600 of these coupon books go to the Senior Food program participants, helping them obtain healthy produce on a continuing basis. The Food Bank sees its responsibility as helping those who want to change what they eat. We will distribute over ten million pounds of fresh produce this year. Providing farmers markets coupons and giving people fresh produce also allows healthy change to take place. People want to eat well and they want to be healthy. The Food Bank wants to make that possible for the people we serve.

A Look at the Numbers, and the Individuals, Food Banks Around the Nation Help

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: Feeding America, the national food bank network, recently released findings about the “missing meals” in each county in the United States. The Map the Meal Gap project was created, to learn more about the face of hunger at the local level. We now see that 1 in 7 people in the area are food insecure and that includes nearly 22,000 children in Solano County. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) tells us that 49 million people are in danger of hunger nationally. But as I considered those numbers, I was shocked when I saw that 1 in 5 children are in danger of hunger.

Hunger is a pervasive and solvable problem throughout the country. Studies like Map the Meal Gap 2014 (Meal Gap) allow Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano to continue to evaluate and adjust to the need in our area. With the extensive and revealing data provided, we will be armed with the information needed to work towards making sure everyone has enough to eat. The research data includes weekly food-budget shortfalls, demographics and poverty levels which help us determine the social issues in our area and work together as a community to find a solution.

The Meal Gap and USDA numbers say the same thing in many different ways: it is not acceptable for a country as rich as the United States to have children who do not get the food they need. Even one child going hungry is not ok. It does not make sense that hunger should be accepted, no matter the number.

Lori puts a face to those numbers. She is a food assistance participant in Fairfield. She describes her life before 3 years ago as having been “always married with children” and never having to worry about food or that type of thing. Three years ago she went through a very difficult divorce and found herself in financial trouble and needing to take care of her 2 children (now 12 and 14).

A nurse, she worked at the Public Authority with the elderly doing in-home support services, but she has been off work from there since August on disability – which means money is very tight.

The healthy vegetables, rice, cereal, apples, sweet potatoes and other staples she gets from the Food Bank are a huge nutritious boost to her and her children- and it means she can actually afford to buy meat on occasion. Simply being able to get milk (now quite expensive) is a huge relief.

Lori stresses that she appreciates every bit of the help she gets, and she feels it is teaching her kids how to share, be humble, conquer their fears and not be afraid to ask for help. She says their faces light up on days she picks up food, they are so excited to get the healthy yogurts, fruits and veggies she is able to bring home.

Lori hopes that people will see that there is little truth to the stereotypes about people taking advantage to the system. That those who get food, are like you and me, just in need of some help.

I am proud that the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano can help our neighbors like Lori. We will distribute nearly 21 million pounds of food to our neighbors in need this fiscal year, and nearly half that food will be fresh produce. We recognize however that we are one part of the answer. Nutrition programs like CalFresh, school lunch and senior citizen feeding programs demonstrate that as a country know how to extend a helping hand when our neighbors need food. When we see that food is needed, people motivate our response, not numbers.

If you would like to learn more, a summary of the findings, an interactive map of the United States, and the full report are available at www.feedingamerica.org/mapthegap.

Program Today Helps Nonprofits Across the Region

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: I think we can all say we know the slight discomfort that comes between meals, so we can imagine what it would feel like to not be able to get the food you need when you want it. When people spend time learning about the issue of hunger and they understand that over 49 million Americans live in food insecure households, they realize this is a community problem we all need to work together to address.

By supporting the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano people can make a difference in the lives of hungry people in our community. People engage by donating food to us through our community food drives, volunteering at our warehouses or community events and helping to distribute food to people in need. People give their time and energy because they understand that the Food Bank is an effective organization, keeping our administrative and fund development costs to four cents out of every dollar. They also know that we can provide two meals for every dollar donated, showing a strong return because the community cares.

But it’s no great secret that an ongoing issue at every nonprofit organization is raising the money we must have to do our work. Less than 10% of our funding comes from the government; most comes from the community, with most of the community funds coming from individuals.

So many concerns face our community from hunger to environment and education to health. Given the need for all nonprofits to raise financial support, local foundations are working together through Give Local America to make a broad appeal for the support all nonprofits need. In order to be part of building a large community appeal, the Food Bank is participating in the Give Local America one-day fund raising effort on May 6. On a local basis, people can donate through the East Bay Community Foundation (eastbaygives.org) or through the Richmond Community Foundation (wegivecontracosta.org). At those sites, donors can give to the local charities that are participating in the drive. Other than credit card fees, all the money that is donated goes directly to the charity donors choose.

Give Local America came about in celebration of the 100th anniversary of community foundations in America and the vital role they have played developing and supporting local philanthropy. On May 6, 2014 from 12:00am – 11:59pm, you can check out real-time leaderboard to see how the Food Bank and any other favorite nonprofits are doing. Follow the conversation on Twitter and Facebook by using the #GiveLocalAmerica hashtag.

Give Local America is partnering with foundations and charities to increase the generosity of the community. We all believe people want to help make their community a better place to live. Supporting local nonprofits creates a stronger community for all our neighbors.

A Conversation With Congressman John Garamendi

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: With the support of a generous community, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano was able to provide over eight million pounds of fresh produce to people in need last year. As food banks across the country continue to increase the services we provide, our members of congress have had to make some tough choices including cutting funds to federal nutrition programs.

In Contra Costa and Solano counties, over 200,000 people are food insecure and of that population, nearly half do not qualify for federal nutrition assistance meaning that they need to turn to the food bank and our partner agencies. And of those that do qualify for assistance, it is still not enough to make ends meet.

As an organization on the front lines of hunger, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano feels that we need to help inform our elected officials about the impact their decisions have on the low-income people we serve.

We had a chance to sit down with Congressman John Garamendi recently to discuss these very issues that our communities are facing. Being from a district that is a major agricultural area and as a pear rancher, Congressman Garamendi knows the issues we face when we try to access to fresh produce.

He asked how we felt about the compromise in the recently passed Farm Bill; whether the increase we will see in the amount of food we receive from the US Department of Agriculture will make up for the cuts in the CalFresh (food stamp) program. We expressed our gratitude at having additional food to provide to the people we serve, but it is not enough to offset the significant cuts in the CalFresh program. In fact, we continue to reach out to the people who receive food from us so we can enroll them in CalFresh. The CalFresh is the best way to get people the food they need to feed their families. The Food Bank is an important supplement to the CalFresh program, but Congressman Garamendi knows we cannot replace a program that provides essential food to families in need.

Congressman Garamendi told us a story about his daughter, a kindergarten teacher, who took her class on a field trip to a community garden. As the class was getting back on the bus, they realized one child was not with them, so his daughter ran back to the garden where she found the child sitting under a trellis of hanging cucumbers. The child was about halfway through eating the cucumber he had in his hand, but he also had his pockets full of other cucumbers he had picked. The boy was filling his stomach with a cucumber in the garden, but he made sure he had others to take home to share with his brother at home.

The Food Bank has enough food to make sure people do not go completely without, but it is not enough to solve the persistent issue of hunger. By giving our elected officials important information about the need in their community, we hope they can pass laws that will allow us to help each other meet the basic need for food. We can learn from the boy in the cucumber patch. Even in a difficult time, he thought to take care of his own needs and those of his brother as well.