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El Cerrito Neighborhood Takes on Hunger one Green Bag at a Time

By Neil Zarchin, Food Bank Grants Coordinator: The Neighborhood Food Project was launched in Ashland, Oregon in 2009, and has since expanded to many parts of the country.

The Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano is one of the first Food Banks to adapt the program to a county-wide operation rather than to support just one food pantry.  Our Neighborhood Food Project is a donor drive more than a food drive because instead of asking for one-time contributions of food, our volunteer Neighborhood Coordinators enlist their neighbors to become long-term Food Donors by leaving a bag of food on their porches for pickup every two months.  Here’s the story of a new Neighborhood Food Project in West Contra Costa County that is following the classic Ashland model  and doing a great job!

In February 2013, residents of a quiet corner of El Cerrito in West Contra Costa County decided to be among the first to participate.  A neighborhood organization already existed, so when the idea was proposed the infrastructure for the project was already in place. There is some concern for privacy, so the neighborhood won’t be named.

The idea was first brought up at a Holiday block party. Having already used the neighborhood email list to promote the Letter Carriers’ Food Drive, it was an easy step to transfer to the protocol of the NFP.

An email asking for a Neighborhood Coordinator went out to neighbors on the email group list and Dee, stepped up to the task.  She received training and the necessary materials from the Food Bank and then in March, she sent out an email to the group of neighbors explaining the incredibly easy program of neighbors leaving a bag of food on their porches every two months for Dee to collect for the Food Bank.  As each household emailed her to join , she left an empty, reusable Food Project bag on their porch containing extra informational flyers to give out to other neighbors who might not be in the email group. By the Pickup Day in April, a dozen families had already enrolled for their area’s inaugural collection. All twelve families who signed up participated (a couple of reminder emails were sent) and a 100% collection participation was achieved!

On the first pickup on Saturday, April 13th , as Dee walked the neighborhood collecting the bags from her neighbors’ porches in her radio flyer wagon, a few more neighbors approached her and she signed them up on the spot for the next Pickup Day in mid-June.  The neighborhood area also expanded from the one major street to neighbors living on adjacent streets.  By the second pick up, the number of food donors almost doubled! And even though one family forgot to put out their bag on that June morning (Dee did collect it later), another gentleman seeing her pulling a little red wagon filled with green bags of food down his street, not only stopped her to sign up for the next collection in mid-August, but also spontaneously took the empty food bank bag given him for the next collection, ran into his house shortly reemerging with his bag of food donation for that morning’s collection too.

And of course as the number of neighbors sign up and participate, the amount of food donated by her neighborhood, collected and delivered to the Contra Costa food by Dee, is increasing. She takes a few pictures of their food collection as it’s received by Joan Tomasini at the Food Bank warehouse on Pickup Days and emails them along with thanks to her amazing neighbors and they are gratified to know and see that they are helping so much to provide healthy food for people in need on a regular basis.

Just imagine how much food the hungry could have if every neighborhood did what these folks do.  As Dee, says, who knew that giving needed food donations on a regular bi-monthly neighborhood donor system could be so easy and be such a source of satisfaction and pleasure for all involved.

One more thing – the first collection back in April was 173 lbs., June was 243, August up to 314 – great progress!!

To join the Food Project or learn more, visit www.ccsfoodproject.org.