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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.

 

Food Bank Welcomes Assemblywoman Yamada Hunger Awareness Event – Learn If You Are Eligible to Receive Healthy Food Benefits

The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano – the county’s trailblazer in hunger relief – is excited to welcome Assemblymember Mariko Yamada to Community Produce Program in Dixon on Wednesday, July 16.  Assemblymember Yamada will be volunteering at the site, helping to ensure that each person in need receives fresh fruits and vegetables to take home.

“California is on the mend, but far too many people are still struggling to make ends meet,” said Assemblymember Mariko Yamada, Chair of the Assembly Aging and Long Term Care Committee.  “Through no fault of their own, working families, students and seniors face skyrocketing food prices because of the drought and the price tag for staying cool in scorching temperatures.

“I wish to thank the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano for providing critical food programs that support the most vulnerable in our communities.”

Food insecurity is a daily reality for millions of Californians.  Children, the elderly, the disabled, and students are the faces of hunger amidst plenty.  The drought and summer bring added challenges to ensuring that our community’s nutritional needs are met.

The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano works to end hunger and increase access to nutritious food for low-income individuals and families. The Community Produce Program is just one of the ways that the Food Bank distributes food directly to people in need. Refrigerated trucks have been customized for the exclusive purpose of distributing fresh produce to communities in need. Clients will be able to pick-up an average of 20 pounds of produce, twice per month.

In addition to the strong leadership Assemblymember Yamada provides in the legislature, we are grateful for the hands-on help she is bringing to the people we serve,” said Larry Sly, Executive Director of the Food Bank.

Help the Hunger Awareness efforts and learn how to apply for food assistance by Clicking Here. Join the Yamada Volunteer Crew and post your hard work on social media with the #HashTags: #YamadaVolunteer #Yamada4HungerAction #[YourCounty]Volunteer on your social media accounts.

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.

20 Creative Ways to Save with Leftovers

Written by Lauren Strouse, Fairfield Office Assistant: I grew up learning to cook in a household where leftovers were part of the menu plan in order to stretch the family food dollar. My mother didn’t waste food. As a young parent, I did the same thing, both to save money as well as time.  Reconfiguring ingredients that are already cooked can save you a lot of time on a busy weeknight. leftoversHere are some ways to save money by turning the food you have on hand into brand new dishes.

  • Use leftover roasted chicken to make chicken and noodle casserole, chicken a la king, chicken soup, or enchiladas.
  • Roast pork, beef or ham can be used in sandwiches, stews, soup, or to stuff a pita.
  • Combine leftover shredded or cubed roast beef with golden mushroom soup, sautéed onions and mushrooms and a little wine or water to make a sauce for egg noodles; add a little sour cream and you almost have stroganoff.
  • Remember hash? Add cubed leftover beef to cubed or sliced sautéed potatoes and onion.
  • Cubed ham can go into pasta and rice dishes, omelets and sandwiches or pair with potatoes.
  • Leftover rice or other grains like barley or faro can be combined with fresh or frozen vegetables and a little cubed pork, ham, or chicken to make fried rice.
  • Create a southwestern style casserole with leftover rice mixed with cream of chicken soup, canned green chilies, a bit of sour cream, grated jack cheese, beans (black, kidney or pinto), leftover chicken, plus seasonings like cumin and chili powder.
  • Combine rice with ground beef or turkey, a little soy sauce, cream of celery soup, celery, onion, green beans or pea pods, and water chestnuts, for mock chow mein. Top with some crispy noodles for crunch.
  • Leftover fresh or frozen vegetables can go into soups or stews and pasta dishes.
  • Cooked asparagus, artichoke hearts, zucchini, fennel, greens like spinach, and mushrooms are great in frittatas and omelets.
  • Toss leftover spinach and other greens straight into pasta sauces, bean and grain dishes to increase the nutritional value.
  • Leftover broccoli and cauliflower can be cooked with a little onion, garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese and served over spaghetti.  The trick is to reheat the veggies gently so you don’t overcook them.
  • Turn leftover vegetables into soup with sautéed onion and garlic. Cover with chicken broth, add whatever seasonings strike your fancy, cook until soft, puree, and thin if needed with milk (fat free evaporated is great for this and shelf stable).
  • Find yourself with half a loaf of bakery bread? Make a sweet or savory bread pudding or a strata. Layer the bread with leftover meat, veggies and cheese, soak it with an egg/milk mixture, then bake. The sweet version incorporates dried or fresh fruits like apples and cherries or even pumpkin.
  • Turn leftover bread into bread crumbs and keep them in your freezer to use in meatloaf or meatballs, or when a bread crumb mixture is called for in a recipe.
  • Do you have pound cake or angel food cake getting stale? Cube the cake and layer it in parfait or dessert glasses with vanilla pudding and fresh fruit like berries or bananas. Add some almonds or other nuts for crunch along with whipped cream on top.
  • Add leftover beef stew to a deep baking dish, make or buy pie crust, top the stew with pie crust, bake, and you have beef pot pie.
  • Make an easy shepherd’s pie with leftover mashed potatoes.  Cook ground meat with onion, a little garlic and add veggies like peas, carrots or green beans. Spread the potatoes on top and bake until the potatoes are golden and the pie is bubbling.
  • Mix leftover mashed potatoes with an egg and a bit of flour, shape into patties and fry to make mashed potato pancakes. Add shredded salmon or chicken and a bit of onion for potato croquettes.
  • Leftover polenta can be cut and fried or layered in a baking dish with tomato sauce, cheese, sliced cooked vegetables like eggplant and zucchini, spinach or chard, onions and mushrooms and then baked to create a kind of lasagna (just be very light handed with the sauce).

Save yourself some money and learn to utilize your leftovers. Let your creative juices flow and create delicious “planned over” dishes for your family.