The San Joaquin Valley — the most productive farming region on the planet — is America’s food basket.
The valley grows more than 250 crops. When coupled with its weaker cousin in terms of farm production — the Sacramento Valley — the two combined regions produce 25 percent of this nation’s table food using only one percent of the farmland.
It is against this background of plenty that the Manteca-based Second Harvest Food Bank is fighting the battle against hunger in San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties along with five adjoining foothill counties. Some 360,000 unduplicated individuals were provided food in 2014 through the distribution center at 704 East Industrial Park that supplies 107 agencies that typically provide weekly food to struggling families and low-income seniors throughout the region.
San Joaquin Valley’s poverty that earned it the moniker as “The New Appalachia” in a 365-page Congressional Reach Service report issued in 2005 is fed by high unemployment, a legion of relatively low paying jobs at the bottom of the agricultural food production chain, and California’s soaring cost of living fueled by the economic boom of the state’s coastal cities.
“I’ve never been food challenged,” noted Kerrie Tapia, who serves as program manager for Second Harvest. “Coming to work here was an eye opener.”
Second Harvest operates much like the Ford Motors Small Parts Distribution Center located less than a mile away on Spreckels Park Avenue. You do not pick up parts there but rather you go to the dealerships that receive parts from the center.
“When people call here for food, we refer them to a list of agencies,” noted Executive Director Mike Mallory.
Second Harvest handles
14 million pounds of food
Paul Rodrigues oversees the warehouse operations that handles 14 million pounds of food a year.
It arrives in the warehouse in several forms. There are gigantic bins of produce that cost the food bank 6 cents to 20 cents a pound via the Farm to Family program that connects growers and packers directly to food bank for low cost fruit and vegetables. They aren’t considered marketable due to size, shape, slight blemished, or overproduction.
There are pallets of goods delivered by sponsors such as ConAgra Foods. There are gigantic boxes and bins of miscellaneous items pulled from grocery store shelves because they are at or nearing advertised shelf life.
Then there are canned goods and such secured from various collection drives conducted by youth groups and non-profits.
All of that has to be sorted, set aside by food type, and then re-boxed or bagged.
Some of the items they receive aren’t food such as detergent, shampoo and toothpaste. They gladly accept the times and send them to food banks knowing those that ultimately receive them will be able to free up what limited money they have to buy food or perhaps pay a water or power bill.
Partners who routinely ship items are Foster Farms, Walmart, Safeway, General Mills, SaveMart Supermarkets, Hormel, Target, C&E Wholesale Grocers, and Grocery Outlet. Other partners are Kraft, Del Monte, Wells Fargo, PG&E, South San Joaquin Irrigation District, Al Gilbert Co., United Way, Bank of America, Kaiser Permanente, AG Spanos Companies, and Raymus Foundation.
huge, critical role
Volunteers provide needed manpower to sort the food.
Volunteer coordinator Lisa Ashley noted those wanting to help can do so for a few hours or a half a day.
Regular volunteer hours are Monday from 9 a.m. until noon, Tuesday from 12:30 to 3 p.m., and Thursday 12:30 to 3 p.m. Additional days and times may also be available based on warehouse needs.
Volunteers can do so once or as many times as they like. The tasks are essentially sorting cans and sorting produce.
Group volunteer opportunities are available. A number of businesses such as Kohl’s make such opportunities available for their staff.
Van Gronnigen & Sons — one of the Manteca-Ripon area’s largest growers and broker of watermelons and pumpkins among other crops — had their staff volunteer for a shift last year.
“They had so much fun and talked so much about it when they got back to work that the Von Gronnigen family itself wanted to volunteer,” Mallory said. They came down to volunteer on New Year’s Eve and said they had a blast.”
The biggest “puzzles” that volunteers sort out are the boxes that come from stores such a Target, SaveMart, Safeway and Walmart.
They typically contain food that has reached its expiration date based on marketable shelf life. But that doesn’t mean the food isn’t still good — far from it.
“We’ve become experts at reading expiration dates,” Mallory noted. “Specific food has specific times where they are still good after the (stamped) shelf life is reached.”
While perishables such as dairy products do not last long afterwards, canned goods and packaged items typically have a useful life of six months to a year depending upon the food item.
There is little worry once the sorted items are provided to the 107 agencies of the food going bad. It is almost always consumed within weeks of reaching a food pantry.
Since 1976 when the Second Harvest was first established in Tracy, they have had no food quality issues while adhering to strict guidelines of both the United States Department of Agriculture and the county health department.
Second Harvest moved to Manteca like many other distribution centers do in order to take full advantage of its central location between two major transportation routes.
Kids do homework,
receive tutoring for
groceries to help
feed their families
Second Harvest started the Senior Brown Bag program and Food 4 Thought.
Food 4 Thought is unique in that children earn groceries to help feed their families by participating in academic programs at the community level such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Manteca-Lathrop.
Boys & Girls Club staff noted members look forward to doing their homework in exchange for the bags of food. They make a beeline for the program after school as staff indicated kids take pride in helping feed their families.
Other sites including Give Every Child a Chance sites and various after school programs where in exchange for eight hours in the academic based programs they receive 15 to 18 pounds of supplemental groceries twice a month along with 7 to 8 pounds of fresh produce.
There were 3,417 kids at 32 participating sites in Food 4 Thought in San Joaquin County last year. They received over 820,872 pounds of food with a value of over $1.3 million.
In Stanislaus County last year, 742 kids at seven sites received 180,401 pounds of food with a value of $304,878.
Some 2,900 seniors in San Joaquin County receive 15 to 18 pounds of supplemental groceries twice a month at 24 locations.
Grateful seniors have sent Second Harvest notes saying how they wouldn’t have been able to eat as well due to having to pay for medicine or even eat on some days due to their bills if it weren’t for the Senior Brown Bag program.
on wheels coming
While Second Harvest won’t reject items such as potato chips should they receive a big shipment to distribute to food banks, their goal is to provide people with nutritious food they can make multiple meals out of along with information on how to do it.
“Top Ramen will fill you up but it isn’t all that nutritious,” noted Kristen Salas who serves as a grant specialist for Second Harvest.
An example staff cites is frozen French fries as opposed to fresh potatoes. Not only are fresh potatoes more nutritious but they can provide many more meals as well as variety for the same price.
To further their goal of simply not feeding hunger but to do so in a way that improves nutrition and heath, Second Harvest is gearing up for a new program.
They have secured an old beer delivery truck with various side panel doors.
It is being converted into a mobile produce pantry. It will be laden with fresh vegetables and used as a farmers market on wheels that will travel periodically to various food banks in the region to allow those in need to select fresh produce.
The power of
donating a dollar
Fundraising is critical to the effectiveness of Second Harvest. While the donations of large items of food stuff by producers, distributors, and retail stores is the backbone of how the nonprofit agency helps feed some 360,000 people a year, donated funds allows them to purchase perishable items such as produce.
Due to arrangements Second Harvest has made, $1 can buy the equivalent of $5 worth of food.
And one of the biggest benefactors of those struggling to put food on the table are organizations such as the Wheels of Woodbridge.
The Del Webb at Woodbridge in Manteca car club has donated over $37,000 in four years for Second Harvest through its annual car show. Other perennial financial supporters for fresh food is the Central Valley Association of Realtors.
They have allowed Second Harvest to earn a “green” designation by Feed America or its ability to address hunger needs in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and adjoining foothills. A “green” rating means most identified needs are being met. It is isn’t unusual for food bank distribution operations to garner “yellow” or “red” ratings that indicate they are either struggling to meet many needs or having a difficult time doing so.
“Manteca is hands down one of the most generous communities around,” Mallory said.
Mallory added it is virtually unheard of a community the size of Manteca to take care of the Thanksgiving and Christmas turkey needs of 1,800 struggling families in Manteca, Ripon and Lathrop through Turkeys R Us.
That leaves Second Harvest with the daunting task of coming up with the meal fixings from potatoes, rolls, and canned vegetables to dressing.