BY DANIEL MCGLYN //
Anyway you stack it – in red food donations barrels, in giant cardboard boxes, or on shrink-wrapped pallets – a million pounds of food is a lot of food. That’s about how much now sits in the massive warehouse of the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano Counties in Concord.
The million pounds of donated food is the result of the last two months of community food drives and will help get the 178 non-profit pantries, soup kitchens, assistance programs, or schools – and eventually the 98,000 people a month that this food feeds – through the winter.
The worry is that the food goes fast. With the current economic troubles and the number of working-class families that hover around the margins of the poverty line increasing, the Food Bank is “expecting more demand and for it to get worse in January,” said the Bank’s community outreach manager, Lisa Sherrill, while meandering through the aisles of the warehouse.
The demand for the Food Bank’s services has grown 20%, in the past two years, and it now serves nearly 100,000 people. “We are seeing an increase in the amount of people who never asked for food before,” said Sherrill.
By early spring, Sherrill said, the supplies on the shelves in the Costco-esque warehouse will start dwindling. By summer the shelves may be bare, “a couple of times a year we have no food,” she said.
So far, the increase in demand is being met with an increase in supply. As the number of users has increased, the amount of food distributed by the bank has risen over the last two years from 8 million pounds to 9.6 million pounds.
Future growth projections on the supply side are conjecture as they are based on the material and financial donations that the Food Bank is able to raise in the future.
One Food Bank trend that may explain the availability of more food is the shift toward fresh produce. Grocery stores and the U.S. Department of Agriculture don’t supply as much canned food anymore, and food banks have become more efficient in dealing with farmers. This year the Contra Costa and Solano County bank will distribute 3.5 million pounds of produce, Sherrill said, four times the amount from four years ago.
The job of sorting processing, checking and readying the food for distribution is done mostly by volunteers. “We can not operate a singe day without the help of volunteers,” said Sherrill, repeating the refrain of the organization’s volunteer coordinator.
The volunteer workforce runs about a 1,000 strong and accounts for 36,000 hours of work a year, said Sherrill. The millions of pounds of donated food need to be checked for quality and expiration, and then properly categorized.
Besides distributing food donations, one of the Food Bank’s main tasks is to remind people that hunger exists year round. After the rush of the holiday food drive there is usually a Post Office food drive in the spring, and then a Safeway summer drive. But the thousands of people who rely on the Food Bank do not go away after the food runs out.
Besides food drives the Food Bank has a series of programs that it organizes:
- Brown Bag. This program gives free groceries to 3,600 low-income senior citizens in the two counties to help supplement their food budget.
- Food for Children. Kids aged four to six, who might fall between the gap of the federally funded Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program and school-based assistance. Each month each of the 700 children in this program receives a 25-pound box of food.
- Food Assistance. Funded by the USDA the program gives food to 15,400 families that fall under the poverty line defined by the federal government.
- Extra Helpings- In conjunction with the Contra Costa County Health Department, the Food Bank provides supplemental food for eligible residents with specific chronic illnesses.
- 2 Kids- The Food Bank provides three to five pounds of fresh produce to 3,400 children in 33 after school programs.
- Emergency Food Pantries and Soup Kitchens- With the Food Bank’s support, 4.3 million meals are served a year.
Even when the holiday season is over and some of the red food donation barrels are rolled away for the year, the Food Bank is still looking for volunteers and donations. In addition to donating food, especially during the summer, the Food Bank could use help in the office, in the development department, or as advocates.
Some suggestions for helping out include: writing a letter to an elected official to address hunger issues, host your own food drive, have a food donation party, or plant an extra row of vegetables in your garden.
The Food Bank of Contra Costa & Solano Counties can be found on the web at www.foodbankccs.org or by calling 925-676-7543