Enjoy the holidays, but don’t forget those in need

#412 in a series of true experiences in real estate
December 2002, Hills Newspapers

We carried our bags of food into Safeway and lowered them into the food bank barrel, canned fruit and tomato sauce and boxes of cereal we’d brought from home. Already inside the barrel were packages of dry milk and turkey stuffing, canned cranberry and some tuna.

“It must be quite a job to deal with all that food,” I said to Anet. “It all will have to be sorted before people who need it get it.”

We began to talk and guess about trucks picking up the barrels and driving them to some central location. We wondered what happens to the food after that. Are the barrels dumped out in one place, roughly sorted by hand into cans and boxes, then each moved to a specific spot?

By shopping cart? Conveyer belt? Tuna and dry cereal together, or separate?

Do the people who get the food get to shop for what they need? Is it like shopping at a grocery store?

The more we imagined how the logistics of food distribution might be handled, the more we really wanted to know. A week later we were standing in an enormous warehouse in Oakland, home of the Alameda County Community Food Bank.

Suzan Bateson, the director of the Food Bank, guided us, describing as we walked what we were seeing. What she told us is that it is all big: The operation, the quantity of food handled, the number of people in need.

This county food bank provides food assistance to more than 40,000 people each week. They do it with the considerable help of 300 local organizations that receive food from the bank to supplement donations they have received directly. These groups include food pantries, shelters, churches – lots of people who either give emergency food boxes for people to take home, or prepare and serve meals to the hungry.

It is to this warehouse that the collection barrels are taken. It is also where cases of food donated by various food companies go, and where boxes of fresh fruits and USDA foods purchased by the food bank are housed. Individuals needing food do not go to the warehouse themselves. Instead they go to one of the agencies.

The enormous job of organizing, moving, boxing, and distributing foods is accomplished by many volunteers, as well as 40 food bank employees. There are no conveyer belts in the warehouse but rather a modest sorting area where people are busy moving food, some with forklifts, others using shopping carts.

Most of the food placed in the food barrels is high quality and nutritious. Only a few items are not used. Homemade foods, open containers, bulging cans and those without labels are discarded, as well as outdated baby formula and Ensure-type drinks. Pet food is given to the SPCA.

At this time of year when the Food Bank is getting food out quickly to so many for the holidays, items collected in barrels and by groups like the Boy Scouts are boxed up, filled about equally with a mix of canned and dry packaged items which are given to the 300 groups – 700 pounds to each. They’ll get, for instance, a lot of home-size packages and cans of macaroni and cheese, tuna, corn, beans and pasta. The Food Bank supplements with fresh fruit and vegetables at no charge to the agencies.

With the help of the Faith Network, the Food Bank runs a Children’s Food Distribution program that distributes bags of food to 1100 school kids every week in 8 Oakland elementary schools. Each bag contains 6 to 8 nutritious items such as peanut butter, canned tuna, pasta and low-sugar cereal.

Member organizations that serve prepared meals to the hungry include the St. Vincent de Paul Free Dining Room and St. Mary’s Center in Oakland and Dorothy Day House and the Berkeley Food and Housing Project in Berkeley — and many others.

We asked which foods are most prized, what we should best deposit in a food barrel? “Nutritious foods,” Suzan Bateson told us, “Ones with protein and fortified with iron such as canned meats, peanut butter, tuna and cereal.”

We also wanted to know if the Food Bank would prefer cash to food donations? “Cash does go farther,” Suzan told us. She explained that the bank can acquire food for less than we can buy retail, even when we buy, say, peanut butter on sale 2 for the price of 1. And foods that we donate are not entirely free to the food bank because the food must be handled and stored, in some cases delivered, and all of that costs money.

Anet and I have always felt strongly about donating real foodstuffs, items that we were sure would be eaten by someone. Money gifts, it seems, are frequently gobbled up by administrative costs. But in this case, the overhead of the Food Bank is very low, only 8% of their budget. A remarkable 92% is given directly back to the community. Suzan runs a tight ship.

The Food Bank is able, for example, to buy, store, and transport fresh oranges for only 6 cents per pound. Thirteen pounds of oranges for a dollar is very inexpensive. So, although in the future, Anet and I will still donate foods from home, we are also sending in checks, starting now. The Food Bank needs all they can get.

Suzan says that the Food Bank needs donations year round – not just during the holidays. Most recipients have jobs but are not earning enough to buy sufficient food. Some have lost their jobs and are in need of help. Either of these situations could be our own at some time in our lives.

“I think of donating as an investment in the future and in the education of young children who can learn better if they have adequate nutrition,” she says.

Checks can be sent to Alameda County Community Food Bank, P.O. Box 2599, Oakland 94614 or directly to a favorite organization. On-line donation site is www.accfb.org. Food barrels are in many locations until the end of the year, including Safeway and Albertson’s stores, Berkeley Bowl, and the main library in Alameda. To volunteer time, food or money, call 510-635-3663.

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