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Larry

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.

38 Years of Food Banking

cfcoalition 77

The Community Food Coalition 2 years after it was founded in 1977. Larry Sly is 3rd from the right.

I just celebrated my 38th year working at the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano and so it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the changes I have seen. When I was hired, I was the second employee; the one and only truck driver. At that time the Food Bank was a trailer Safeway had loaned us to store canned food. Our job was to provide food to 17 food pantries that gave people an emergency three-day food supply. Individuals who tried to obtain government assistance programs like CalFresh (food stamps) often found that they had neglected to bring proper documentation, so the eligibility worker was able to use the community resource these food pantries represented to deal with a short term emergency.

We still provide food to pantries today, in addition to our direct service programs, but many programs now provide food to people on a regular basis. Even if people receive government support, they have difficult time getting by on a limited income. The first Food Bank direct program was what is now known as the Senior Food Program because we saw that people could not make ends meet on Social Security alone. The Food Assistance Program was set up to give surplus food from the US Department of Agriculture to low-income people. The availability of fresh produce allowed for the creation of the Farm 2 Kids program and the Community Produce Program.

Food Banking has changed as the need in the community changed. The government programs that provide financial assistance to people in need have greatly diminished. While we cannot make up the loss, we are able to make a difference for those at risk of hunger. We’d like to get back to a place where people only need food from us in an emergency, but until hunger is recognized as a national issue, the Food Bank will do all we can to help people get the nutritious food they need.

How the Drought Could Effect the Food Bank’s Ability to Provide Food to People in Need in Our Community

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: Those of us at the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano are proud that we have been able to increase the amount of food we distribute to people in need in our community. We serve over 149,000 people each month, and our job is to provide them as much food as we can. We also try to give them the healthiest food we can, so we have dramatically increased the amount of fresh produce we distribute. Last year we gave away eight million pounds of produce as part of the eighteen million pounds of food we distributed, and we are on track to give out ten million pounds of produce this year.

Our plans depend on the excess produced by California agriculture however, so we are very concerned about the effect the drought will have on the produce available to us. Food comes to us from the produce producing areas in our state, so we worry about how much cauliflower and broccoli will be grown in the Salinas Valley. Carrots, onions and potatoes may not be available to us if growers can’t get water. Fruit trees may only receive enough water to keep the tree alive, not enough to allow it to produce fruit.

The decisions being made about how we allocate the water available to us will have an impact on everyone. We will all pay more for food because less will be produced at a higher cost. We also see that the increasing international demand for food driving up the cost of both fresh and canned food. The Food Bank depends on California agriculture and we fear that this is a year we will have less food at an increased cost as we try to help those in need.

The Food Bank and Good Nutrition

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: March is National Nutrition Month which causes us to reflect on the changes that have occurred at the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano over the past several years. Our first priority is to see that people have enough to eat; everyone needs enough calories. But people who lack money should not have to get by on food that is empty calories; we all deserve good nutrition. So the Food Bank focuses on buying food that helps us meet that goal. The canned fruit we purchase is packed in juice, without additional sugar. We buy low-salt vegetables. Whole wheat pasta and rolled oats provide good nutrition as well as filling you up.

We have made the most significant changes in the area of nutrition with our Community Produce Program. We will distribute nearly three million pounds of fresh produce to people in our community this year. People are able to take home approximately 25 pounds of fresh produce twice a month. In addition, we have a nutritionist at the distribution sites offering people educational materials and recipes. The Community Produce Program hopes to provide people food and help them understand how best to stretch their limited dollars.

People understand that their health is related to the food they eat. But people with limited budgets constantly have to decide if fast food (incredibly cheap and convenient) is a better choice than fresh food. We are currently doing a study to see whether people change their patterns and eat more fruit and vegetables because the Community Produce Program made fresh produce part of their normal meals. I think the message is very clear that what we eat determines our health. National Nutrition Month gives us an opportunity to show that message applies to everyone.

A Local Business, Filling an Important Role in Our Local Economy

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter:  The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano hosted a recent mixer for the local Chamber of Commerce and it reminded me of the many roles the Food Bank plays in the community. I often focus on the “non-profit” side of our status as a non-profit corporation, downplaying our role as a local business. But when we gather with other local businesses in Vacaville, Fairfield, and Vallejo, I realize that we are like many other small businesses in our community.

We employ more than 60 people in Solano and Contra Costa counties. We own a warehouse in Concord and lease 30,000 square feet of warehouse space in Fairfield. We have bobtails and tractor trailer trucks that deliver millions of pounds of food to agencies in our community. While we do not pay business or property taxes because of our non-profit status, we pay DMV fees, sales tax, Social Security taxes, Worker’s Comp, etc. We provide health insurance for our employees.

As a local business, we consume fuel (lots of fuel), we buy boxes to store donated food, and we buy bags for produce. We buy office supplies, pallet jacks and forklifts. We contract with a payroll service, a janitorial service and firms that provide training to our staff. We have a Board of Directors that approves a budget and sets operating goals. We provide them with monthly dashboard reports to track our progress.

We are members of the Chamber of Commerce because we are a locally-based food distribution business. The only thing that makes us different is that our business is providing food to other non-profit organizations or directly to people in need. Because of our mission, we have non-profit status, but we are a local business, filling an important role in our local economy.

On Slow Job Growth and Long Term Unemployment Expiration

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: In looking for signs of economic recovery, current job growth is not encouraging. The national unemployment rate has fallen, but increases in job growth are consistently low and do not indicate a recovering economy. The low job growth numbers back up the stories we hear of people losing a corporate job and not being able to find work for years, if at all. People have lost their job when the recession began and have not been able to find meaningful employment since then. Times are getting worse because the long term unemployment insurance people relied on to pay for housing and food for their families expired at the end of 2013.

Because Congress did not extend the Emergency Unemployment Insurance Program more than 325,000 people will lose their unemployment benefits in the first six months of 2014 according to a report from the Ways and Means Committee. We know these people because they have been coming to the Food Bank’s Food Assistance Program or Community Produce Program. The 25 pounds of food they get at one of these sites helps, but it is not enough food for an entire month. Our help will not pay rent or utility bills, nor will it buy a warm coat for a child. As President Obama read Misty D’s story in his State of the Union speech: “I am confident that in time I will find a job…please give us this chance”

The people the Food Bank serves are incredible at gathering together the bits of community support that can help them hold their lives together. A meal from a soup kitchen, food from the Food Bank, clothes from the Vacaville Storehouse all help. Unemployment insurance is there to help those who can’t find work at a time when jobs are still not readily available. We have the resources to help and it’s important that we do.

Many Seniors Must Choose Between Food and Other Necessities

Originally posted by the Vacaville Reporter: Seniors often find themselves having to choose between paying for necessities such as medication and food. In fact, nearly one in five older Californians are not able to afford enough food.

Senior holding tomatoes

Fran, age 92, is a volunteer and recipient at a Senior Food Site in Walnut Creek.

With your help, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano is able to provide groceries to more than 3,000 seniors each month through the Senior Food Program. Seniors 55 and over receive nutritionally balanced bags of food so they may not have to make those tough decisions. It is critical that we increase the availability of targeted nutrition assistance programs to provide seniors with the food they need to maintain a healthy life style.

Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, a member of Feeding America, is committed to providing nutrition to senior citizens but we need your help. Senior Food Program participant Ron has worked three jobs his entire life and it is difficult to accept the idea that he and his wife, Rosa, need help with food.  The Senior Food Program provides groceries that supplement the food Ron is able to buy, and stretches his hard-earned dollars. Your donation to the Food Bank can help senior citizens, like Ron and Rosa, eat better and enjoy healthier food.

For more information on how you can help the Food Bank provide nutrition to seniors, please visit www.foodbankccs.org/seniorhunger.

Looking Back at 2013

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: As we near the end of 2013, we are concerned about the needs of our hungry neighbors more than ever before. We are seeing record numbers of people at our food distributions, yet federal nutrition programs keep getting cut. In spite of this challenge, we are committed to helping end hunger in Contra Costa and Solano counties, and easing the burden of those in need. But we can’t do it without the help of our amazing community.

Twice per month, an average of 6,000 households in Contra Costa and Solano counties are able to take home 20+ pounds of fresh produce twice a month through the Community Produce Program. The people who support our work help put fresh produce on families’ tables.

One of those families belongs to Mauro A. Mauro used to work full-time but his hours have been cut and he just doesn’t make enough for a whole month of food. He really appreciates the selection of vegetables at the Community Produce Program. The Food Bank is now averaging one million pounds of produce every month going to your neighbors, people like Mauro. Thank you to our amazing community for everything you’ve helped accomplish this year. Together we are working to end hunger in our community.

Amazing Events Help Us Feed People In Need

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: One of the most interesting things I have found in my time with the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano is how diverse people’s interests can be. A big part of my job is to raise community support for the Food Bank’s work, so our job is to find ways we can join with other groups, each with distinct interests, to help feed our neighbors in need.

During the holiday season, we participate in some amazing events that help us feed people in need. Some examples include:

  • Instead of having a golf tournament, the Valero Benicia Refinery had a clay pigeon shoot. Refinery employees and their subcontractors raised money while having target practice.
  • We received funds from the annual coin show put on by the Diablo Numismatic Society.
  • Local realtors have networking groups and the Food Bank benefitted from the holiday parties of the Contra Costa Realtors in Motion and the Realtors Marketing Association of San Ramon.
  • Sunset Development provides financial support during their Christmas tree lighting.
  • Donations came from the Western States Petroleum Association’s holiday party
  • The Food Bank received money raised from the offering taken at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church during their performance of Handel’s Messiah.
Valero Clay Pigeons

Valero Benicia Refinery employees and their subcontractors raised money while having target practice.

While this list is just a sample of the way people help us in our work (and I apologize to the many people I did not include) it demonstrates that thousands of people with a wide range of interests agree that hunger should not exist in our community. I think everyone involved with the Food Bank knows, as a community we can do better. There should not be hungry children, there should not be hungry adults and there should not be hungry seniors. Hunger is unacceptable.

Tenth Annual County Cares Food Fight

Originally posted in the Vacaville Reporter: The Solano County Board of Supervisors recently challenged the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors to “bring it on” for the tenth annual County Cares Food Fight. This friendly competition between employees of both counties is a way of sharing the holiday spirit with the people in need the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano serves. County employees volunteer their time in creative ways raising funds for the Food Bank so help can be there during the holiday season and beyond.

Bake sales, gently-used jewelry sales, and donations for a dress-down day all help the Food Bank’s work. County staff members have fun with the “competition” that exists between departments in each county so they can get bragging rights with their fellow employees. The energy and creativity people put into this drive shows that people truly care about those in need in their community. It also shows they know how to have a fun time as they make a difference.

The County Cup Food Fight benefits the Food Bank several ways. Obviously, the money makes a real difference. This drive has raised over one million dollars in the past nine years, and provides the Food Bank more than $120,000 each year to help our work. But this drive is as important in the sense of community it brings. It is a significant act when people work together to make a difference in the lives of those in need. Through their actions, county employees are saying that it is not acceptable for hungry people to exist in our communities. The money and energy they give are a statement that hunger is not acceptable in our community.