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Building Community, Sharing Food

During the summer months, many think of sun, vacation and playtime, but at the Food Bank we are thinking of ways to meet the ongoing need for food in our community. Food drives are an important part of the food we provide, but during the summer, food donations are dramatically down compared to during the holiday season. In an exciting new effort to bring in a steady supply of food all year, we are embarking on a new project called the Contra Costa & Solano Food Project (CCSFP).

The Food Project is a donor drive, not a traditional food drive. Rather than asking for one-time contributions of food, volunteers enlist their neighbors to become long-term food donors. People commit to giving a small amount of food every two months, which provides our Food Bank with a year-round supply of food and provides the donors with the ongoing satisfaction of making a real difference.

Our key volunteers to the CCSFP are the Neighborhood Coordinators that enroll their neighborhood often asking friends and acquaintances that live close by. The Neighborhood Coordinators (NCs) can choose to involve a few houses, a whole street, or several blocks. The Food Project begins when the NC takes a supply of information cards and green Food Project bags to neighbors to explain the program and invites them to join in helping to provide food for hungry people in their community (we’ll show you how!).

The Food Project was created in January 2009, by a small group of Ashland, Oregon residents. They realized that many of their neighbors wanted to help fight hunger in their community, so they created a simple, door-to-door food collection system to make it easy for everyone to participate. They had three goals:

1. To provide a regular supply of food that would help feed hungry neighbors all year round.

2. To create new neighborhood connections and strengthen their community

3. To serve as a model for other communities

The volunteers promised to stop by their selected neighborhood homes every 2 months, pick up the food and take it directly to the Ashland Emergency Food Bank. The project started with a core group of 10 volunteers picking up food and netted 600 pounds of food. One year later, there were over 150 Neighborhood Coordinators. By December 2010, the collection was over 28,000 lbs in one day! And this quantity of food still comes in on the 2nd Saturday of every other month.

It is now our turn to join in the Food Project movement as it spreads into California and soon across the nation. The Contra Costa & Solano Food Project needs you to make this grassroots effort a success. Whether you’re interested in donating food, collecting it, or helping build community in other ways, we invite you to join us as we form our neighborhoods for our first pickup day of August 11th. Learn more and get started by filling out a contact form on the Food Project website, or call Joan Tomasini at 925.676.7543, extension 208 or email jtomasini@foodbankccs.org. Together we are building community by sharing food!

If I Couldn’t Grab a Midnight Snack

Guest post by Jenay Ross, Print and Digital Journalism major//Music Industry minor, University of Southern California: Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you were homeless? What it would be like if you didn’t have the same bed to sleep in every night or if you didn’t have a fridge to go through to search for a snack?

I think about it every time I feed the hungry.

Tonight I volunteered for Mission Solano’s Nomadic Shelter Program hosted by the Rockville Presbyterian Church in Fairfield. It was the most put-together food line I had ever volunteered at.

I don’t mean in terms of how organized it was, but how special everything looked. Instead of paper plates and plastic utensils, they used real plates and silverware placed on nice table cloths with candle center pieces.

The clients, or “guests,” arrived by bus shortly after 6:15PM, clean from their showers back at Mission Solano and ready for a filling meal.

Tonight’s meal consisted of glazed ham, green beans, mashed potatoes. bread, salad and a variety of cakes.

As if their “thank yous weren’t enough to warm my heart, every face had gratefulness written all over it. I even had the pleasure of having a conversation with a few of them about my own experiences at other food lines and my journalism endeavors.

One thing that blew me away was how helpful the clients were. They didn’t just congregate somewhere else while the volunteers cleaned up. They started breaking down tables, putting away chairs and even mopped up the floor while the volunteers did the dishes.

My favorite moment of the night was when a lovely young man was playing the church’s piano and started singing while some of the others laughed and danced.

Now the people are being tucked away at the church for a good night’s rest with a roof over their heads.

No one should ever go hungry and sometimes it’s up to us, the more fortunate souls, to be there for them.

Editor’s Note: Mission Solano is a Food Bank Partner Agency. To learn more about our agencies visit: http://www.foodbankccs.org/get-help/member-agencies.html

Farmers’ Markets for All

By Heidi Kliner, AmeriCorps VISTA: There is a common misconception that farmers’ markets are just for the privileged due to the idea that farmers’ markets are significantly more expensive than grocery stores, but many studies have shown that farmers’ market prices are not much higher than supermarket prices, with many of the fresh, seasonal produce being comparable or even less expensive than the same items in the supermarket, and with the added benefit of better quality and a boost for local business and community.  In truth, farmers’ markets can be a great way for low-income individuals and families to access healthy food, especially if they have CalFresh (aka Food Stamps)!

The way it works is someone with CalFresh goes to the information booth and tells the market manager he or she wants to use their EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card.  The market manager then swipes the card on a POS machine for the amount the person plans on spending at the market, and then gives tokens, each worth a dollar, which can be used at the different vendor stands like cash.  These tokens can be used to purchase produce, dairy products, baked items, meat, seafood, and even plants for growing one’s own food.

Tips for saving money when using your EBT card at the market:

  • Ask about incentive programs for people using EBT.  For example, all the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association markets this year have the Market Match program, where someone spending at least ten dollars in tokens at the market will receive five extra dollar tokens to be used for produce.
  • Split up some of the shopping based on price.  If some of the items like the meat or baked goods seem more expensive than in the grocery store, consider splitting up your shopping by buying all your fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ market and your other items at the store.
  • Shop later in the day.  Vendors may discount their items near the end of the market day in order to get rid of it.
  • Buy a plant.  If you have a yard or a porch you can use for growing food, purchasing a plant at the market can be a low cost way of having several fruits or vegetables throughout the season (just be sure to look into whether your market is currently selling edible plants).

Fresh Produce Where It's Needed Most

The other day I visited a school in Richmond as part of my regular visits to the 79 schools we serve through the Farm 2 Kids program. As the Program Coordinator it is my job to make sure everything is going smoothly at the schools’ weekly produce distributions and look for other ways the Food Bank can help.

This is an area hard it by the effects of the recession and as I drove through the neighborhood that fact was made apparent by the amount of foreclosure signs I saw.  Kristina, the After School Program Manager showed me where they pass out bags of produce to the kids as their parents pick them up at the end of the day.  Families were helping themselves to oranges, potatoes, and yams and the kids seemed more than happy to help their parents carry the food home.  When I talked further with Kristina she explained to me that parents are taking this produce not as a luxury, but as a necessity.  “We have so many families that are moving in with their extended families to save money so we have new kids at the school all the time.  Parents are losing their homes and their jobs and having to rent rooms to get by.  This food is something they really need.”  She went on to explain that in times of crisis, people see the school as a safe place they can go for resources.  She loves being able to provide healthy food as another resource for them because she knows they need it.  The extra help the Food Bank provides helps them stretch the few dollars they do have to provide for their children.

The Farm 2 Kids program provides 3-5 pounds of produce to after school programs each week.  Over 9,000 low-income children regularly receive fresh fruits and vegetables through the program.  To find out more about Farm 2 Kids visit our page or donate to support the program.

USF Grad Students Distribute Food

Guest post by Adrienne Sommer-Locey – I don’t know what I was expecting when my team signed up to bag food for the Vallejo distribution with Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano. Times are tough, and friendly faces can be hard to find; you never know what you will encounter at an assistance program. With an open heart and willing mind, my community service team and I carpooled to Vallejo to share our talents and learn from our experience.

Upon our arrival at the Community Center in Vallejo, we hopped out of the car and met the other volunteers, a team of high school students. There was a little separation between the two groups in the beginning as we introduced ourselves and signed in, but as soon as the truck with food pulled up there was work to do and no time to be shy! In the blink of an eye, tables were put out, pallets were set up, and an assembly line was formed. We all had our marching orders as to what goes in each bag, and instantly got to work with all the hustle we could muster.

In our Undergraduate program, we studied classical management techniques, the history of the evolution of organizational structures, and beyond. Learning these facts by rote will drill the concepts into your head, but the experience at the food bank brought it to life! We were constantly seeking the “one best way” a la Frederick Taylor, testing to see how to make the flow of the product move more efficiently. We specialized in our tasks and the products we handled as Adam Smith suggested in the Wealth of Nations and which Ford perfected in the automobile industry. We employed friendly peer pressure to goad each other on in a sort of reversed “soldiering” to go faster and be a stronger team member. Each person played their part, and the work was done in record time.

Once the bags were created, we shifted gears and got ready to meet the people who would be receiving them. Some of us took the role of greeting people and distributing bags, others took a role of maintaining the bags and keeping the supply chain rolling. I was part of the latter group, but I got an opportunity to meet and talk to the recipients as well. The most difficult realization was that the people we were helping were just like me. This was not some remote group in foreign lands suffering from malnutrition like you see in ads on TV. These are our fellow Americans, our neighbors, our friends. The truth is the face of poverty is our face, and their struggles are no more remote from us than our own shadow.

It can crush your spirit to see so many people struggling to get by day to day. Instead of a painful confrontation however, the work was done with a generous heart, the food gladly given and received, and everyone, including the recipients, was friendly and positive,. They were happy for the relief, and we were happy to assist them. There was no pity or resentment, just a real sense of compassion and gratitude. It felt good not just to do for others, but to be a part of a team working for a positive goal. My day at the Vallejo food bank was unforgettable; an experience I hope to repeat and share with many others.

Schools See Increased Need

We all know that the economy continues to flounder and despite reports of economic recovery, there are still many families that are struggling to put food on the table.  We see this first-hand when more people come to our distributions and sign up for CalFresh (formerly Food Stamps).  Another indicator of this disheartening trend is the increasing number of school children who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.  This number is of particular interest to me as I coordinate the Farm 2 Kids program, a program that provides free produce to children in low-income after school programs.  As I keep a close eye on these statistics I am noticing that sadly more schools are becoming eligible for Farm 2 Kids and of those that are eligible, their percentages are getting higher and higher.  This has been a glaring signal that the economy is hitting our children harder than anyone else.

Today, 1 in 4 American children are at risk of hunger.  It is because of this trend that the Food Bank is now expanding service at the very neediest schools to provide produce for all children, not just those in the after school program.   Hungry children cannot focus and be successful in school, much less grow to be healthy adults. For that reason the Food Bank hopes to continue expanding its service to schools to combat this issue.  For more information regarding free-reduced lunch percentages here is an article with details.  Visit our website to find out more about the Farm 2 Kids program.

Share your thoughts in the comments.

From Hunger to Health

While a movement toward healthy eating has been building for some time, with the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative, the trend is gaining national attention.  Because diabetes and obesity are on the rise, more and more Americans are beginning to educate themselves on making healthier food choices.   As families struggle to put healthy food on the table we began asking ourselves, what is the role of the Food Bank?  We know our goal in serving over 132,000 people each month is not simply to fill bellies but must also provide good nutrition.

The Food Bank now evaluates the nutritional value of each item we purchase, looking in detail at sugar and salt content, as well as the vitamins and minerals it contains.  Our Senior Food Program serves low-income people over the age of 55, so we buy low-sodium or no sodium canned vegetables.  For the Food for Children program that serves kids ages 4-5, we opt for canned fruit in 100% juice, not syrup.  We also avoid overly processed foods. Instead, we choose whole food items like beans, rice, and lentils.  We also provide the same options to our pantries and soup kitchens giving them more whole grain choices like brown rice, barley, and whole wheat pasta.

Our focus has shifted toward more fresh fruits and vegetables that provide our clients the nutritional balance they need.  In that vein, we have rapidly expanded the Farm 2 Kids program that provides fresh produce to low income school children.  Distributing fresh produce has increased so significantly over the last few years that 1/3 of the food now distributed by the Food Bank is fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fast Food Stamps

Should Food Stamp recipients be able to use their benefits to buy fast food? The program now known as CalFresh in California (and SNAP federally) was initiated during the depression to help end hunger and encourage domestic consumption of agricultural commodities.[1] The goal of the program is “to alleviate hunger and malnutrition … by increasing food purchasing power for all eligible households who apply for participation” as stated in the Food Stamp Act of 1977, as amended (P.L. 108-269).[2] A record 45.8 million Americans used the program in August according to USDA that number represents an 8.1% increase over the previous year. [3]

Even though the name changed last year and benefits have been received on a electronic debit card system since the 1990’s, the term “food stamps” has remained the commonly known name of CalFresh. As the new name implies, people are encouraged to purchase fresh, healthy food items with their benefits, but are allowed to purchase any food items found in a grocery store except hot food, alcohol, cigarettes, pet food and household items. Benefits can also be used at many farmers markets. And in California benefits can be used at restaurants by people who can’t cook for themselves such as homeless, elderly, and the disabled. Should it be ok then for all recipients to use their benefits at fast food places where the food quality and nutritional value is surely less than what they could get at the grocery store or fares market? A certain fast food company was recently lobbying for just that in several states.[4] Share your thoughts with us but please remember to keep it respectful.

Gift Cards Galore!

Guest post by Kristy Osborn, Extra Helpings Coordinator. In the month of November, the Food Bank distributed a $15 Safeway gift card to each client in the Extra Helpings Food Program and will be doing the same at the end of December.  Each year, the Food Bank distributes gift cards in the program during these months in lieu of distributing turkeys or hams due to food safety, personal choice, and logistical reasons.   “By giving our clients a gift card instead of a turkey we are able to ensure that they will be able to get what they want because not everyone likes turkey or ham.  Also, it is a lot easier to transport 50 gift cards rather than 50 turkeys to a distribution site and there are no potential food safety issues. It’s just a win, win all around to do it this way,” explained the coordinator of the Extra Helpings Program.

The gift cards allow the clients to have the ability to pick out something special for themselves during the holidays.  For many of them, this is the only gift they may receive during the holiday season since some are estranged from their family and have few social outlets to make friends. One client expressed his appreciation and excitement regarding the gift cards saying, “Thank you sooo much!  I’m gonna get me a big turkey and make a feast with all the fixings for Thanksgiving.”  When the Extra Helpings Coordinator asked the client who was coming over the client responded, “No one since all my family lives on the east coast and I don’t have too many friends.  I’m just gonna cook a big Thanksgiving meal cause I like to cook and I deserve it!”

The Extra Helpings Program is a supplemental food program for people of all ages who are living with HIV/AIDS and are case managed through the Contra Costa County AIDS Program. Clients can receive food twice a month through this program and generally receive a box of nonperishable items (canned foods,  dry pasta/rice, cereal, peanut butter, etc.), a bag of produce, bread items, meat (chicken or beef), cheese and a gallon of milk each time they come to the distribution site.  The Extra Helpings program offers home delivery service for clients who are medically homebound and too weak to pick up their food. The Food Bank has been offering this program since 2006.

Agency Store Gives Help with Dignity

Guest post by Inventory Logistics Coordinator, Charisse Ross. The Vacaville Storehouse is a distribution center for food and clothing to needy families of Vacaville. The food is provided by the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano. Food and clothing are given free of charge to those who are in need. Some members of our operations team stopped in for a visit and shared what they saw.

Filled bags of groceries ready for Storehouse patrons.

Their store front looks like a mini Target. Clients check in at the door and are asked if they have picked up groceries yet this month. The volunteer will verify in their computer whether or not the person came. If not, they go through the FAP (Food Assistance Program) qualifying process. If they have not received their FAP groceries yet, they are given a coupon that they exchange for the proper number of bags based on their family size. Whether they are picking up a FAP bag or not, they still get to shop in their “store”. They are given one empty grocery bag and they can fill it with whatever items they want (i.e. clothes, perishables and/or other non-food items). About 1500 bags of groceries are distributed every month.

Pastor Raymond Beaty is the Executive Director of the program. The white boxes behind him are cereal our purchasing manager helped them get.

They have an internship program with kids between 18 and 23 who have graduated from high school, but not sure of what they want to do next. They come from all over, even different countries and are housed by host families from their church. These kids take various different classes they provide plus they volunteer at the Storehouse every day. The Storehouse also goes out into troubled areas of their community and (using the same qualifying process) give out groceries. For instance, one location is a park where gang members might hang out. They show up with food to give out, the gang members go away and they have noticed kids coming out to play.

54 scarves knitted for the Storehouse by Food Bank employee, Charise, her friends and family.

The Vacaville storehouse is located at:
1146 E. Monte Vista Ave.

Vacaville, CA 95688

For more information please email Stephanie Johnson or visit their website.
Have you been to the Storehouse? Tell us about it in the comments.

 

Vacaville Storehouse