Harvesting Compassion : Support Group Has Become Major Funder of Food Distribution Center

Why was an organization that was giving so much getting so little?

That was the question Jill Johnson-Tucker asked herself last year after touring the Orange County Food Distribution Center, a nonprofit agency that provides food for 260 local charities.

The 10-year-old center in Orange had a slew of volunteers--people who helped collect and distribute surplus food supplies to the needy--but no supporters to raise funds.

Johnson-Tucker asked center board President John Heffernan what she could do to help.


Organize a support group, he told her.

Johnson-Tucker was willing, but fearful. “I didn’t think I had enough contacts to pull it off,” she said. “I had a small group of friends; would they be enough?”

How many of us have asked ourselves that question and then done nothing because we were afraid, or didn’t know how to begin?

Not Johnson-Tucker. She called her close pal, Jennifer Van Bergh. Together, they came up with a core group of about 10 people. “Enough to put on a little fashion show that we would co-chair. We hoped to raise about $5,000,” said Johnson-Tucker.


By the time they were finished, the duo had founded the Harvesters, a 45-strong women’s support group that staged a fashion show netting $48,000.

“Without them, we would have been in the hole last year,” said Heffernan. “Their success was a very pleasant surprise.”

How did they do it?

“It was a little overwhelming at first,” admits Van Bergh. “But Jill and I kept on meeting, having lunches, drawing up lists of what we wanted to try to do.”


And they ended up with a plan: Appoint members of their core group as sub-chairpersons of their fashion show and have an infomercial kind of party about the Food Center at Johnson-Tucker’s home in Big Canyon.

“We got the party guest list by asking each member of our core group to come up with about 10 names,” Johnson-Tucker said.

They sent out a letter to potential Harvesters, introducing the Food Center and inviting them to come for a 5 p.m. get-together.

They served wine, sparkling water, salmon mousse, swordfish on endive leaves and a pesto and sun-dried tomato torte. They put jazz singer Basia on the stereo, a video about the Food Center on the tube. And, after guests had warmed up to each other, they invited them to hear talks by Food Center officials.


It proved an irresistible cause. “Not one person left without signing up--committing to $100 per year dues,” Johnson-Tucker said. “After all, what’s more important than feeding the hungry?”

Next: the fashion show.

Their support group had snowballed into proportions beyond their dreams. They needed a name, a fashion vendor that could draw a crowd. Van Bergh had a connection with St. John Knits. Why not go for the gold?

“Five of us had lunch with the chairman of St. John,” Van Bergh said. “We basically told him that the Food Center needed us and we needed them. He said they would love to help; they really went out on a limb for us.”


The rest is Food Center history. More than 400 guests attended the St. John fall fashion show staged in July at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach.

“The $48,000 they made basically gave Orange County’s needy 850,000 meals,” Heffernan said. “Of the county’s 2.4 million people, about 390,000 go to bed hungry.”

The Food Center links businesses with surplus food--grocery stores, restaurants, caterers-- to charities that help the hungry. “For example, Disneyland has 42 restaurants,” Heffernan said. “We have linked them with the Salvation Army. We have linked the Hard Rock Cafe to the Someone Cares Food Kitchen. Presently, we are feeding 180,000 people per month.”

On Friday, the Harvesters met at the Center Club for their first meeting of the year. Members paid for their own lunches, saw a fashion parade by Chanel and made tentative plans for this year’s show.


“We’re still talking to retailers at this point,” said Johnson-Tucker. “We have not yet decided where the event will be held or whose fashions will be featured.”

But one thing they know. “We’re determined to even make more money,” Van Bergh said. “And we will. How can we miss with an enthusiastic group of women who share a fundamental feeling they should give back to the community?”

Said Johnson-Tucker: “We’re a fortunate group of people who don’t have a need and feel for those who do. We’re really inspired by the feeling that we can make a difference.”