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Food Banks Struggle to Fill Shelves

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While many residents are pondering what to do with all of that leftover turkey, stuffing and green bean casserole, staff and volunteers at organizations dedicated to feeding Ventura County’s needy are thinking of ways to restock their shelves.

The holiday season encompassing Thanksgiving and Christmas is traditionally the busiest time of the year for community pantries and other nonprofit organizations that provide groceries and everyday necessities for needy residents.

In Oxnard, FOOD Share, the county’s food bank, has launched its Holiday Challenge campaign to increase donations of canned goods, hauling scores of collection barrels to local businesses, schools and grocery stores throughout the region.

Volunteers at community pantries such as Manna in Thousand Oaks and Care & Share in Simi Valley have also geared up for the winter rush.

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“It’s busy. Sometimes it’s hectic,” said Lisa Dobbs, a volunteer administrative assistant at Care & Share. Dobbs said the Simi Valley community pantry assisted 250 families over the Thanksgiving holiday and expects to see 500 to 700 for Christmas.

The impetus for the sudden increase in the number of food drives during the holidays is not that more residents are going hungry during the winter.

“There is always a big increase in activity putting together emergency food baskets around the holidays,” said Jim Mangis, executive director of FOOD Share.

FOOD Share, started in 1978 by volunteers gleaning leftover produce from farms throughout the county, functions as a central warehouse, supplying 183 local agencies, including community pantries and charity groups.

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These local organizations, which often sponsor their own food collection drives, in turn distribute their donated goods to families eligible to receive them in packages containing a week’s worth of necessities throughout the year, or in emergency food baskets during the holidays.

The baskets, assembled and distributed by volunteers, are intended to ensure that their recipients are able to share in the spirit of the season.

Each basket usually includes a turkey and other items needed to prepare a holiday meal, such as dehydrated mashed potatoes, as well as necessities such as cooking oil and other nonperishable goods which can last a family through the winter.

Sometimes these efforts to ensure a full table for families who otherwise couldn’t afford one stretch community pantries’ resources to their limit.

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Pauline Saterbo, the administrator at Manna, said half of the inventory at the Conejo Valley’s community pantry will be depleted after Thanksgiving despite the efforts of numerous volunteers at schools and other organizations from Calabasas to Newbury Park.

“It moves so fast,” she said.

About 400 households in the Conejo Valley served by Manna received Thanksgiving food baskets and other assistance through its “Adopt a Family” program, Saterbo said. The pantry also sees 100 to 200 “walk-ins” each week seeking help.

Saterbo said more donations of items such as canned chili and meats, spaghetti sauce, toilet tissue, soap and toothpaste will be needed to ensure Manna will be able to meet its demand for Christmas.

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“I can’t stress enough that when people donate to a food bank, always donate things you’d find in your own home,” she said, adding that more donations of ethnic foods, such as canned menudo and hominy, are also needed.

At FOOD Share, holiday canned food drives are one of the few opportunities for the agency to stock up on such nonperishable goods, Mangis said.

“Canned food drives are our only source of high-quality canned foods,” Mangis said. He added that FOOD Share hopes to collect 60,000 pounds of canned goods during its countywide Holiday Challenge, enough to last through the winter.

Although many food banks were able to distribute an abundance of surplus canned goods when they were established in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, discount outlets specializing in such items have since cut into the available supply, Mangis said.

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“Canned food outlets have created a secondary market for a lot of that food,” Mangis said.

Although holiday food contributions will allow FOOD Share and community pantries to feed the county’s hungry through the winter, some hope people’s giving spirit doesn’t get put away with the Christmas decorations after New Year’s Day.

“People are thinking of it more this time of the year,” Dobbs said. “There are other times when the shelves are empty.”


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