Sorting Help for the Hungry : Food Co-Op Tackles Some New Challenges

Beaches, barbecues and vacations are uppermost in the minds of many North County residents at this time of the year. However, for Ilene Bates, it’s business as usual as she hauls boxes of grapefruit and stacks jars of peanut butter in a San Marcos warehouse.

Bates is director of the North County Food Co-op, an agency that solicits and distributes food donations to the needy of North County.

“This has been a difficult summer,” said Bates as she surveyed the co-op’s partly filled warehouse. “During the holidays everyone is thinking about the hungry. But our problem is to feed them all year long.” The downturn in the economy has also had the ripple effect of decreased food donations, she added. “But we still have the homeless and the hungry, and we are still trying to feed them.”


Formed in 1988, the North County Food Co-op is an offshoot of the Oceanside Community Action Corp., a nonprofit agency helping low-income families in the North County. It grew out of a need among several area agencies for a central clearinghouse that could devote all its time and resources to solicit food donations, said Bates.

“What they were doing at that time was duplicating each other’s efforts in calling food growers and distributors for donations. We now solicit donations on behalf of all agencies. One school or one club can have a food drive, and instead of all the food going to just one agency, it goes to all the agencies.”

Eighteen participating agencies operate soup kitchens, emergency shelters and residential homes for a wide array of people in need, including the homeless, battered women, abused children, migrant farm workers and the elderly. The amount that each agency receives from the co-op depends on the number of people it serves. The co-op supplies almost all the food needs of some of the agencies, but meets only partly the requirements of others.

As a central clearinghouse, the co-op has been successful in reducing waste and in meeting the special needs of each agency. “In the past, one agency would get several gallons of orange juice that would go to waste because they couldn’t use it all,” said Sister Clare, executive director of St. Claire’s house, a residential home for needy pregnant women and children. “And we now get things that we need the most, like baby food and formula.”

Since its inception, the co-op has depended on a patchwork of individual donations, food drives and grants to feed the hungry of North County. It accepts all edible donations, but prefers non-perishable items because of limited refrigerator and freezer space. Non-food items such as diapers and toothbrushes are also welcome.

Individual contributions range from family efforts to the donation of professional services.

The Spiegler family of Encinitas learned about the co-op when Pat Spiegler helped her son’s Scout troop organize a food drive. “It was a very special feeling, and we made a commitment to help out as long as the co-op is around. The children are very much a part of it, and they get really involved,” Spiegler said. During the family’s monthly trips to a grocery store to shop for the co-op, Fred and Pat Spiegler focus on the essentials while their older sons, Steven, 11, and Ryan, 7, pick out things that children would like.

On the other hand, Thomas Hefferon, an Escondido chiropractor, holds “patient appreciation days.” Patients who bring in donations for the co-op are given treatment free or at a discount. “A lot of my patients say they have always wanted to do something like this, and the food drive gives them an opportunity to help the needy,” Hefferon said.

The co-op also receives donations from groceries that give away what they cannot sell, Bates said. “It could be day-old bread or produce that is just a little wilted and doesn’t look good on the produce stand.” Occasionally, the co-op also receives grants to buy food. Such grants are really welcome, Bates said, because they allow the co-op to buy needed items that haven’t been donated.

Although Bates is the only full-time paid employee, volunteers from across North County pitch in to keep the co-op running smoothly. The volunteers help in food sorting, clerical work, deliveries and pickups. “Social services cannot run without volunteers. There is just no way because there is not enough budget to pay enough people to do what needs to be done,” said Bates.

As the co-op struggles to stretch its funds to meet its operating costs, it is beginning to explore new ways of raising money, Bates said. As a first step, a street fair sponsored by the Oceanside Community Action Corp. will be held on Labor Day in Oceanside. The fair will feature a children’s carnival, food booths, military displays and a job fair.

The major sources of funding for the co-op now include the county, the cities of Carlsbad, Escondido and Oceanside, and private foundations. It does not receive federal grants or state funding.

Bates said today’s hungry are not just the homeless. The working poor--families where one or both spouses have jobs but the income is so low that it won’t stretch for the entire month--are a growing segment of the hungry. Last year, more than 101,000 such families were fed by the member agencies through the food supplied by the co-op, said Bates.

And she expects that the numbers will be even higher this year. “During the school year you see lots and lots of kids stopping by to have breakfast at the soup kitchens on the way to school because they did not have any at home. And sometimes that is the only meal they get that day.”

The North County Food Co-op is located at 1410 Grand Ave., Suite E, San Marcos. If you would like to volunteer, organize a food drive or donate food, call Ilene Bates at 471-1613.