A Nourishing Task : San Diego Food Pantry Solicits, Collects, Stores and Distributes Goods to Agencies Helping Poor, Homeless
Right now, what Ileen Bates needs most is bread. The other day it was spaghetti noodles. She can always use peanut butter, tuna and powdered milk.
Bates’ job is to help feed North San Diego County’s poor, although it’s a sure bet that none of the region’s hungry has been to her office--a small, nondescript warehouse in San Marcos.
Bates is a former executive secretary for a Rancho Bernardo electronics firm who decided, during a self-described mid-life crisis, to direct her energy toward a social cause so she could offer something to the world besides a perfectly typed memo.
Today she is coordinator of the North County Food Co-Op, a community food pantry that solicits, collects, stores and distributes food to nine agencies from Oceanside to Escondido. The agencies provide a menu of services and programs to the hungry, the unemployed, the homeless and the battered.
The Food Co-Op was formed in March, 1988, by three of the agencies--Oceanside Community Action Corp., North County Interfaith Council and North County Centro--which met daily with hundreds of people who were hungry but had no efficient way of collecting and distributing food to them.
“Someone would call with a large food donation and none of the agencies had anywhere to store it, or one agency would need some food for an emergency situation and they wouldn’t know where to turn,” Bates said. “It was decided that a single food bank to serve all of the agencies in North County would be the best way to go.”
Bates estimated that since its inception 15 months ago, the co-op has collected and distributed more than 150,000 pounds of food.
Some of the food comes from singularly large donations. The other day, a San Diego woman who happened upon 8,000 pounds of onions from a farmer near El Centro donated 1,000 pounds of her haul to the co-op.
NeMo’s, an Escondido wholesale bakery, sends entire pallets of baked goods--carrot cake, blueberry muffins, croissants, cookies and the like--to the co-op. The food does not meet cosmetic standards for retail sale but is nonetheless tasty and healthy.
The Ryder truck rental company in Escondido offers the use of its vehicles to pick up and deliver contributions.
The Lawrence Welk Vacation Resort recently donated hundreds of small bottles of shampoo and bars of soap--the kind that are put in motel rooms--to the co-op. Bates is looking for similar donations of razors, toothpaste, toothbrushes and other items she can put together as “street packs” for the homeless.
Far and away, however, most contributions come from individual donors and food drives. A recent Girl Scout drive, for instance, generated 8,000 pounds of food for the co-op.
Occasionally, unusable food is donated--a fact that brings both a cringe and a laugh from Bates.
“We sometimes get caviar, pate, pickled sardines--things like that,” she said. “You figure one of two things happened. Either the person received that as a gift and had no use for it, so decided to give it to us, or a youngster was asked to bring a donation to school and his mom or dad said grab something out of the pantry, and that’s what he came in with.”
Such items are difficult to pass on to a hungry person who would just as soon eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she said. “To give someone who’s hungry a can of caviar is a bit like pouring salt in an open wound.”
Bates’ favorite contribution is money.
“There are things we need that people generally don’t donate--baby formula, disposable diapers, baby food, things like that,” she said. “One time we had a request for roast beef from one of the agencies that has a residential home. The women there were getting tired of macaroni and cheese and said they would have died for a nice Sunday dinner. I went out and bought them one.”
With cash, Bates is able to shop around for the best possible bulk purchases of items that are needed all the time. The co-op has a kitty of about $4,500, the result of several small grants. Bates hopes to bring the account to $12,000 with a constant source of revenue from a private foundation or funding source, so she can purchase $100 in hard-to-come-by food and supplies each month for each of the nine member agencies.
The largest single expense for the agency is the rental of the San Marcos warehouse. The cities of Carlsbad, Oceanside and Escondido contribute $6,000 each toward the rent. San Diego County contributed an additional $40,000 in seed money last year, and this year added $14,000 toward the program to help cover operating costs. Bates is the sole paid employee; others volunteer their time in soliciting and distributing the food.
Member agencies say the Food Co-Op is the answer to their dreams, resolving what had been a logistical nightmare.
“We’re all into loaves and fishes--feeding people who are hungry. We don’t compete with one another but, until the Food Co-Op was established, we weren’t able to really help one another,” said Bob Klug, who coordinates North County Interfaith Council’s food program. The council offers a soup kitchen and also provides emergency food to individuals in need.
“Every once in a while, someone would offer one of the social agencies in North County 10 or 20 pallets of food--and we’d have to turn it down because we simply had nowhere to store it,” Klug said. “Now we can have it stored at the co-op, and even share it among the members who need it most.”
With Bates in the middle, the agencies also are able to share food among themselves. One agency, for instance, might receive perishable food that it cannot use before it spoils; the food is shared among the various agencies.
“I’d rather give, say, pistachios to another agency than to keep it for myself and have them rot before I can use them all,” Klug said.
He recalled the time when his agency was in need of onions, and put the word out to other agencies that work through the co-op. Sure enough, another agency had more onions than it could use, and sent them over to Klug. Everyone was happy.
“A couple of years ago, we were all throwing up our arms in frustration,” Klug said. “Now we have the answer, and I don’t know of anything like this in Southern California.”
Darlene Ulrich is the executive director of the Oceanside Community Action Corp., which is the fiscal agent for the co-op.
“One of the things we’ve learned from this is that it’s easier to get donations from companies if they know they’re serving nine agencies, not just one, with their donation,” Ulrich said. “It’s easier for companies to donate if they see us working together on the same problem, rather than overlapping one another and not being as efficient.”
In addition to the three founding agencies, other members include Casa de Amparo, a shelter for children in Oceanside; the Ecumenical Service Center, which provides food, clothing and shelter in Oceanside; the Hidden Valley House, a shelter for women and children in Escondido; Lifeline Community Services, which provides crisis intervention, emergency housing and transportation out of Vista; St. Clare’s Home, which operates three women’s shelters in Escondido, and the Salvation Army Family Services, which provides food and clothing in Oceanside.
Each of the member agencies conducts its own food drives, which are warehoused in San Marcos.
Bates said she is aware of cynicism that food might be steadily provided to people who come to rely on it as their sole source and who don’t then work to better their situations.
“The beauty of this co-op is that each of the member agencies counsels its clientele to find out how they got into the problem they have, and how they can get out of it,” Bates said. “These are the people who need some temporary help until they get back on their own feet. This is not a welfare giveaway program, and I don’t think a person who is unwilling to help himself will get food from us more than twice before being identified.”
Help for Other Agencies
In addition, the co-op provides emergency supplies to eight other agencies in North County--agencies that have no way of contributing to the food bank but have their own food needs.
For instance, Bates is trying to find a daily supply of bread for a youth camp in the Pauma Valley that will provide summer vacations for disadvantaged youths from Los Angeles. Since bread spoils so quickly in the summer, she is hoping for a daily contributor to help feed 80 teen-agers daily through the end of August.
In addition to food and cash donations, there are a few big-ticket items Bates would love to receive: a computer, to better record donations, current inventory and help with fund-raising efforts, and an institution-size refrigerator or freezer for perishables.
“What we could really use is a service club or someone personally to help sponsor us, to make us their charity,” Bates said. “I know that everyone needs money these days, and there are a lot of charities out there, and a lot of groups have their pet charities. We don’t have one yet, and we’re like nine charities in one.
“If we can provide the food needs for these member agencies so their clients aren’t hungry, they can better do what they’re trained to do.”