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Larry Sly: Earth Day a reminder to use resources responsibly — including food

Originally posted on The Vacaville Reporter: This week we celebrate Earth Day, which focuses on responsibly using the resources of the planet.

Being “green” means we use what we need while we minimize the waste we produce. When I began working at the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, I didn’t realize that we were also an environmental organization. Our primary mission is providing food to people in need and one of the main ways we are able to do that is by acquiring food surplus that would otherwise go to waste.

California grows enormous amounts of fresh produce which has a limited shelf life. Refrigeration and other technology extend the life of the fresh food, but millions of pounds of produce would go to waste if food banks did not exist.

Today more than half the food that the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano distributes is fresh produce. Because we have contacts in the agriculture industry, we receive donations of produce by the trailer load.

Local residents are also saving perfectly good food from being wasted in residential backyards.

Often people have fruit trees and gardens that produce much more than their family and neighbors can consume. An orange tree, for example, can produce hundreds of pounds of fruit; far exceeding the needs of a few individuals. We are thankful that groups like Urban Farmers, Food Rescue and the Concord Diablo Rotary club have volunteers who are willing to gather and donate fruit from backyard trees. Instead of the fruit falling to the ground and perishing, these volunteers ensure that it goes to the people in need within our community.

We try to make sure that we conduct our business of feeding people in need, in the most environmentally responsible way possible. This includes working to conserve natural resources.

We installed solar panels on the roof of the 30,000 square-foot warehouse that we own in Concord. Those panels produce nearly all the energy we need for our commercial refrigerators and freezers, as well as for our computers, lights, etc.

In both of our Fairfield and Concord warehouses, we had an analysis of our energy use done by PG&E so we could take steps to limit our energy consumption. We have screens in our refrigerator doors to help keep the cold air inside as our forklifts transport food in and out of the refrigerators. We installed energy-efficient lighting throughout our warehouse and offices.

We also use a software program called Roadnet that helps us track our drivers as they drive their routes, allowing us to divert them so they can immediately pick up items, saving gas in the process.

The people we serve benefit from us working with the agricultural community and backyard gardeners to save over ten million pounds of food from waste.

The environment benefits from us using solar technology and adhering to other “green” ways of doing business.

Our society, as a whole, benefits when we all try to honor Earth Day every day.

Healthy Eating Habits Best Thing For Children

Originally posted on the Vacaville Reporter: Whether the information comes to you from statistical studies or just from taking a look around, it is obvious that the United States is facing an obesity epidemic.

The facts are overwhelming; we have the second-highest obesity rate in the world and spend more than $190 billion a year treating obesity-related illnesses. If you think the battle over healthcare is a major issue today, imagine what is going to happen as obesity and other diet-related illnesses increase the need for high-cost medical services.

As with so many of the issues we face as a society, the answer is fairly straightforward, but is difficult to implement because it requires us to think and plan long term. It will require us to change patterns that have developed over decades.

For more than a generation, our diet has deteriorated as we’ve replaced fresh food with prepared ready-to-serve meals and fast food.We have saved time and created convenience, but our diets are now filled with processed and sugar-laden foods. The associated health issues we see today are taking a toll on our society.

We have saved time and created convenience, but our diets are now filled with processed and sugar-laden foods. The associated health issues we see today are taking a toll on our society.

This situation will not turn around overnight, but the conversation around the importance of improving our diets has at least begun and some progress has been made in our children’s school cafeterias.

The nutrition standards of school meals were updated in 2012 under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kid Act. These improved standards require more fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains and less sodium, fat and sugar in school lunches.

A survey done by the Pew Charitable Trust and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 72 percent of parents support strong nutritional standards for school meals. Another study published in Childhood Obesity, found that 70 percent of middle school students and 63 percent of high school students like the more nutritious school meals.

Kids are being exposed to healthier food in their school lunches and they are gaining first-hand knowledge that healthy food can taste good.

Most of the children we serve at the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano receive free or reduced costs lunches; making the meals they receive at school an important part of their diet.

By providing students healthier food on a regular basis, they are learning that fruits, vegetables and whole grains are an important part of a wholesome diet.

Furthermore, they are developing patterns that will fight obesity and other health-related illnesses.

We are doing the right thing when we feed our children well; we are setting them up to be healthy and successful.

A healthy school lunch is one of the best investments we make in the future of our society.

The author is executive director of the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, based in Concord. Email: info@foodbankccs.org

Marking Four Decades Of Making A Difference

Originally posted on The Vacaville Reporter: This year the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano is celebrating its 40th anniversary of providing food to people in the community.

Our work began with two employees and a pickup truck. We borrowed a trailer to store the food and assisted 19 local emergency food agencies. Forty years later, we have grown to an organization of 70 employees (full-time and part-time) and a fleet of 16 vehicles. We now operate out of two warehouses, totaling about 60,000 square feet, and we serve one in eight residents within Contra Costa and Solano counties.

Much has changed, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the dedication of our employees.

Last week I celebrated my 39th anniversary with the Food Bank (I was the truck driver in the two-person operation). People are often astounded (myself, included) that anyone could work in a job for nearly 40 years, since, in today’s world, the average employee stays in a job for under five years.

At the Food Bank, my tenure is not that exceptional. Three other employees have been working tirelessly for more than 30 years. One of them is our Warehouse Manager, who was originally hired as a truck driver when he was just 18 years old. Another employee has reached the 20-year milestone and eight others have exceeded the 15 year mark. Soon, six more employees will be celebrating their tenth anniversary with the Food Bank.

What causes this level of commitment to a career? The Food Bank is a good employer; we pay decent wages and offer benefits, but we are not a high-tech software startup with all the goodies.

The people who work for us are driven by the mission of the organization. They see the need in the community on a daily basis. They understand the roles that volunteers and non-profit agencies play in providing food to people who need help.

They understand that the jobs that they perform, such as providing financial oversight, raising money, educating the community about hunger and running an efficient food distribution system, all serve as integral functions of the organization. Simply put, Food Bank employees know that the work they do makes a difference in people’s lives.

Food banks throughout the nation are filled with people who have spent 20 to 30 years dedicating their lives to anti-hunger work.

We are proud that we also have served as the “farm team” for other food banks. Three Executive Directors of Feeding America food banks began their career at the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano.

Our 40-year growth curve demonstrates incredible change. We are not the same organization we were in 1975 and we are not the same organization we were in 2010.

The need is great, so we must grow. Having spent 39 years doing this, I acknowledge it has also been a fun experience. Even on one of the days that is not so good because of “stuff,” I go home knowing that we distributed nearly 80,000 pounds of food, contributing to more than 65,000 meals for our neighbors in need. I wish I could do another 40 years.

Distributing Food Is Collaborative Process

Originally posted on The Vacaville Reporter: Distributing more than 20-million pounds of food a year, in an effective matter, is no simple feat.

One way the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano gets the food to the people we serve is through our direct distribution programs. This means that we give the food directly to the individuals and families in need. However, by collaborating with almost 200 partner agencies, we are able to reach many more people who are food insecure. The Food Bank distributes food to these agencies, who in turn, distribute it to the people they serve.

Besides the soup kitchens and food pantries that we partner with, our other nonprofit partner agencies provide a variety of other services that include transitional housing, child-care, career counseling and assisting the disabled. Collectively, these agencies serve food to 110,000 individuals annually, ranging in age from young children to the elderly.

Last week the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano hosted its 5th Agency Summit and I was reminded of how important our network of agencies is in making our work possible. The goal of this event is to gather information and learn from each other. It was inspiring to see nearly 200 people representing agencies from cities throughout Solano and Contra Costa counties working together with a common goal.

The Food Bank arranged for the attendees to break up into smaller groups to learn about a variety of topics. These topics included: food handling safety, fund development, CalFresh basics, dealing with difficult people, serving diabetic clients, crowdfunding to raise money and recruiting/training volunteers.

The agencies benefited not only from the expert presentations, but also from exchanging their knowledge and experiences with one another.

We were privileged to have Ann Huff Stevens from the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis and Kim McCoy Wade from the Alliance to Transform CalFresh as our keynote speakers.

Ann discussed poverty and the impact being poor has on local families. The academic studies she has done demonstrate an incredible social loss when people must focus on providing the basics of life. Children who do not eat well do not learn well and develop health issues. Ann’s research shows that if we improve the lives of those in poverty, society will benefit.

Kim followed Ann’s presentation by talking about CalFresh, one of the basic building blocks that helps California residents living in poverty. CalFresh recipients are given a debit card that allows them to buy food in local grocery stores. The CalFresh program provides essential support to individuals who do not earn enough and struggle to provide housing, utilities and the basics of life for their families.

Ann Stevens and Kim Wade put forth the concept that we are all part of a social investment by helping individuals and families escape poverty.

The Food Bank and our partner agencies are excited about expanding the role we have in making long-term differences to the people we serve, while simultaneously improving our society as a whole.

Working To Ensure Food Programs Reach All Those In Need

Originally posted on the Vacaville Reporter: The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano has direct food distribution programs and we work with nearly 200 nonprofit agencies that feed people in our local communities. The Food Bank is committed to fighting hunger and more than likely you have witnessed our efforts firsthand. There is a good chance that you have seen the food donation barrels around town. And perhaps you have seen a Food Bank banner at a community event or have seen the delivery trucks on the road? You might have even seen us in action if you have come to one of our two warehouses to drop-off donations or volunteer your time. It might be surprising to learn that one of the most important ways the Food Bank helps the hungry individuals in our society doesn’t take place in the public’s eye. Advocating for food and hunger related issues and policies are a crucial part of helping those we serve.

The national organization that we are affiliated with, Feeding America, partners with the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) to bring food banks and advocates together in Washington DC each year.  It is a chance for us to communicate with our elected representatives, so they understand the food issues we see in our communities.  We are grateful that in Solano and Contra Costa counties, our elected officials have a good understanding of what causes hunger.  It is important that we share real-life stories with these policy-makers about the people we see. They, in turn, can help others understand the challenges people face trying to get assistance from federal food programs.

In some instances, we advocate for programs that directly impact our ability to provide food.  The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) provides the Food Bank with food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  We receive millions of pounds of food as well as administrative funds that allow us to provide food to the agencies we serve. We also provide this food directly to people who come to our Food Assistance Program.

The Food Bank realizes we need to help carry the message to elected officials that there are many Californians that legitimately experience food insecurity. The CalFresh program provides benefits to eligible low-income Californians. CalFresh is the first line of defense against hunger, providing food assistance to low-income children, seniors and disabled individuals.  Because so many people need food assistance, this program is a significant part of the budget and Congress often looks to cut programs like CalFresh.

The Food Bank recognizes that our distribution programs only address part of the public need and that the behind-the-scenes work we do to influence public policy is vital.  There is no doubt that the Food Bank plays a significant role in helping people in need, as we distributed 20-million pounds of food just in the last year.  However, people also rely on CalFresh, school lunch, Meals on Wheels and TEFAP.  We need to do our part to ensure that all these programs get the appropriate funding, so the most basic of needs, such as providing your body nourishment, can be a reality for all.

Food Safety Is A Top Priority For Local Food Bank

Originally posted on the Vacaville Reporter: The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano is a member of Feeding America, the national association of food banks. Feeding America food banks are held to a high standards for service, food quality and transparency. We use the same standards as the corporate food industry because food banks realize that low-income people deserve food that meets the same standards as the grocery industry demands.

Food banks have been working with the food industry to demonstrate how we can work in tandem to save food from being wasted. Feeding America collaborated with several major grocery chains as they developed systems that would significantly reduce the amount of food waste in their stores.  Walmart, Target, Sam’s Club, SaveMart and other chains established procedures where perishable food items would be pulled from the retail display while the food was still at a high level of quality. In some instances, meat could be frozen or other steps could be taken to extend the useful life of the food. As the grocery industry developed this system, they worked with Feeding America food banks so we could be an effective partner in accepting and distributing the grocery donations they were able to provide.

As the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano set up procedures to accept these donations, we focused on our building structure and developing our training plans. The Food Bank either picks the donations up in our refrigerated trucks or has member agencies directly pick food up from stores. We provide the agencies that pick the food up with thermometers so they can verify the proper temperature of the food and we provide them with thermal blankets to properly transport the food to the agency refrigerators. All the people involved in this effort receive ServSafe® training, so they are properly trained in safe food handling methods. Because we take these steps and because we handle food properly, millions of pounds of valuable food has become available to the people we serve.

Constantly improving the food safety standards of the Food Bank is a constant part of our culture. Part of our contract with Feeding America requires that our warehouse pass a third-party sanitation and safety audit.  AIB International is a food safety audit firm that has been doing training and food safety compliance work for over one hundred years (they began as the American Institute of Baking). With their advice, we developed a thick binder full of processes and protocols that have become part of every decision we make in our warehouse. The procedures our truck drivers and warehouse workers follow insure that the food we distribute is safe.  We take great pride that our audit score (on a scale of 1000 with 700 being a passing grade) was 935. I was pleased that the reaction our warehouse employees had after receiving the good news was to start thinking of how we could improve. We work to get better because it is the right thing to do for the people we serve.

March’s Focus On Nutrition Is A Chance To Educate People On Food Choices

Originally posted on the Vacaville Reporter: March is National Nutrition Month, which focuses on educating people to make informed food choices and creating comprehensive dietary habits. Struggling families in Contra Costa and Solano counties often aren’t able to select healthy options. Many turn to less expensive foods that are higher in fat, salt, calories and sugar, which can contribute to chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano is committed to providing nutrition to local families that otherwise might be out of reach.

We all know that eating fresh fruits and vegetables is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, but not everyone is able to afford nature’s nutritionally-packed food. This is why the Food Bank distributes a million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables each month. In fact, our second biggest distribution program is our Community Produce Program, which focuses solely on produce.

Twice a month through the Community Produce Program, the Food Bank’s customized trucks serve as mobile farmers’ markets. The difference between Community Produce Program and a farmers’ market? The produce is free and up to 20 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables are given to each qualifying household at each distribution.

In order to help low-income children have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and establish healthy eating habits at an early age, the Food Bank created the Farm 2 Kids program. We partner with after-school programs in low-income areas in eligible school districts.  Every week during the school year 9,000 children receive a three to five pound bag of produce to take home. Sometimes it is the only food they have for dinner.

For the 1 out of 4 children who struggle with hunger every day, school can serve as a place where they can count on receiving the food they need to learn and thrive. The School Pantry Program provides nutritious, nonperishable food to students attending qualified low-income schools. The School Pantries are located on school grounds and run by a school staff member.  This way food can be given out discreetly to avoid any embarrassment that many students already experience during high school years.

The office manager of one high school realized a girl at school was not eating anything except for the free lunch she received at school.  When she spoke with this girl, the student explained that her dad has diabetes and they spend all of their money on buying him special foods.  Sometimes there is just not enough for her brothers and sisters.  She is now able to pick out the foods her family can eat like brown rice, canned vegetables without salt and low-sugar cereals.  This is a nutrition need that the Food Bank would not be able to identify on our own.  Through these strategic partnerships the Food Bank is able to help students of all ages in a way that provides the nutrition they need and helps them to be ready to learn.

In addition to these specific programs that address the nutritional needs of people in our community, the Food Bank also offers nutrition support in the form of recipes and education. We strive to educate clients and volunteers at partnering agencies about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, small servings and nutritionally balanced meals. Budget-friendly recipes and cooking tips are provided at distributions, in newsletters and on our website. These resources help individuals turn the ingredients they receive from the Food Bank into delicious and nutritious meals.

Although March marks National Nutrition Month, our mission here at the Food Bank is to supply families with healthy food year round.

Changes Helped To Grow, Improve Food Program

Originally posted on the Vacaville Reporter: Most of the changes that have taken place at the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano have come about in a natural evolutionary process.  We have grown into an organization that wants to provide our clients with not just food, but healthy and nutritious food.

Our initial focus on providing healthier food started with selecting better nutritional options when purchasing food from our suppliers. We started purchasing fruit packed in juice without added sugar, reduced-sodium canned vegetables, peanut butter without added sugar and canned tuna packed in water, rather than oil. The cost of food is always a concern to us and the agencies we serve, but we also realize that short-term savings decisions we make can have long-term health impacts on those who eat the food we provide.

Our nutritional efforts further expanded when we started working with the California Association of Food Banks to obtain donations of unmarketable but wholesome fresh produce.  We started receiving oranges, apples, broccoli, cabbage, sweet potatoes, onions and more.  This produce is not marketable for a number of reasons, but it is full of nutrients and is a valuable resource to the individuals we serve.  This supply of fresh produce became vital as we built distribution programs like Food for Children, Farm 2 Kids and the Community Produce Program. We have found that people do want to eat well, as they know it will improve their overall health.

Unfortunately, low-income people often have trouble getting the fresh produce they need, as it can often be expensive and difficult to obtain. We know we are making a difference when we send a truck load of fresh produce to low-income schools and local health clinics. Now over half of the food we distribute annually is fresh produce. To add more value to the produce we provide, we started offering recipe ideas and nutrition information at distributions and in newsletters. With this information, our clients can turn the ingredients we provide into healthy meals.

To get a general nutritional overview of the food we were distributing, we began evaluating the percentage of food that we would consider “good” (cookies, soda and sweets are not considered “good”). We developed a standard that had some subjective judgments, but we have stayed consistent to the standard we set, giving us a good evaluation tool.  Over the years, we have seen our standard of “poor food” decline from 7% of the total food we distribute to now be approximately 2%.  With the Food Bank purchasing healthier nonperishable food and the increase in fresh produce that we distribute, it is clear that the focus is not just on the quantity of food, but the quality of food as well. When individuals eat healthier, our entire society wins.

Food Bank Marks 40 Years Of Service

Originally posted on the Vacaville Reporter: In 1975 Linda Locke worked in the Contra Costa County Social Service Department.  When she was not able to sign a client up for food stamps because of missing paperwork, she would refer the person to the food room in a local faith community.   Volunteers in those food rooms would provide the person in need with a three-day package of food to get by. Linda soon discovered that the food room inventory would run short before the end of the month.  Being a resourceful type, Linda worked with her department, faith communities, food donors and obtained the loan of a trailer from Safeway.  Using county trucks and two desks in a county office, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano was born.  Little did I suspect when I began working for the organization in March of 1976 that I would be writing an article today that celebrates the 40th anniversary of an incredible idea.

Beginning with the storage trailer and two staff members (I was the truck driver) we distributed just over 30,000 pounds of food to the food pantries in our first year.  I would not have believed that forty years later we would have seventy people on our staff, 88,000 hours of volunteer time and would distribute twenty-million pounds of food in our community each year.  I would not have guessed that half the food we give out would go through direct service programs, where we bring food to church parking lots or health clinics.  Serving Contra Costa and Solano Counties, we provide food to a large geographic area. We continue to improve the service we provide to nearly two-hundred nonprofit agencies.  It is essential for us to make the food we provide easily accessible to the people in need. With half of the food we distribute being fresh fruit and vegetables, it’s critical that we distribute the perishable produce in a quick and efficient manner so individuals can benefit from the added nutrition.

The first fundraising effort we made was applying for a grant from the Presbyterian Church to buy food for the pantries we served.  Today we continue raising money so we can provide food, including fresh produce, to the people we serve.  Through the generous support of many significant donors, we have a matching fund up to $100,000 for those who make a donation to honor and acknowledge our forty years of nourishing our community.  It is a different world than it was forty years ago, but hunger is still part of our community and people need food every day. These financial contributions to honor our forty years of service will help our neighbors in need.

Senior Food Program Expands Reach

Originally posted on the Vacaville Reporter: Did you know more than half of the households served by the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano have had to choose between paying for medicine/medical care or food? For seniors living solely on social security this is especially true. Through the Senior Food Program, people 55 and over receive nutritionally balanced bags of food so they may not have to make those tough decisions.

Thanks to community support the Food Bank can help ease the burden for senior citizens.

The canned goods, bread and produce seniors are able to receive have a market value of approximately $50 per month and allow them to stretch their budgets to pay for medicine, rent, utilities and other necessities.

Since 2010, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano has seen a 90% increase in the number of people we serve through the Senior Food Program. One of the ways we have been able to reach more seniors is by increasing the number of low-income senior housing complexes we provide food to.

Many low-income seniors who reside in senior housing are unable to travel to food distribution sites due to health issues and a lack of transportation.

If a senior housing complex can provide someone to pick up the food at the Food Bank warehouses in either Concord or Fairfield, Food Bank staff will help them load their vehicle.  The food is then taken back to the complex and volunteers, usually a few of residents along with their service coordinator, bag it in the common room. This provides an opportunity for the seniors to enjoy some social time while they are working and doing something useful for their fellow residents.

Those who are able can come down and get their groceries when the bags are ready, and for those who aren’t, their bags are delivered to them. We are happy to provide this service twice a month to the many low-income seniors who are unable to travel to an open distribution site.

In 2014, we added two new senior food distribution sites in Solano County, Heritage Commons in Dixon and Woodcreek Senior Commons in Fairfield.  They join Vacaville Senior Manor which has been with the food bank several years.  In Contra Costa County, Berrellessa Palms in Martinez joined the food bank in 2014 along with Golden Oak Manor in Oakley, Sycamore Place in Danville, and Columbia Park Manor in Pittsburg.

Beginning in February, 2015 Senior Manor Apartments in Fairfield will add additional seniors to the Senior Food Program at the Food Bank.  We are happy to provide this service twice a month to the many low- income seniors who are unable to travel to an open distribution site.

Learn how you can help seniors at www.foodbankccs.org/seniorhunger.