BRIGHT ORANGE CARROTS, fuzzy ripe peaches, and heads of cabbage the size of bowling balls. Not the kind of fare you might expect to see at a typical food bank, but then again, the SF-Marin Food Bank is far from typical. At the forefront of a movement to bring more fresh produce to people in need, the SF-Marin Food Bank was one of the first nonprofits in the nation to venture out into one of the nation’s most fertile landscapes — California’s farming community — and forge real partnerships. Because of that outreach in the 1990s, the California Association of Food Banks’ Farm to Family program was born, and now an astounding 60 percent of the food from the SF-Marin bank is made up of fresh fruits and vegetables.
January 1 marked the five-year anniversary of the merger of the Marin and San Francisco food banks, creating a partnership that allowed the new organization to significantly expand and enhance food assistance across Marin County as well as San Francisco, with a warehouse in each county. Prior to 2011, there were 18 Marin pantries, where food was distributed once a month. Now there are 47, and they operate every week. The annual distribution of food in Marin has nearly tripled, from 2.2 million pounds five years ago to 6.4 million pounds now. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not just homeless people who need assistance. Only about 15 percent of food bank recipients are considered “homeless”; the rest are individuals and families who are either underemployed, unemployed, disabled and/or elderly. All have the simple yet disturbing problem of lacking enough money to adequately feed themselves or their families three square meals a day.
WHEN IT’S ALL SAID AND DONE, 50 million pounds of food will make its way through the bank’s Marin and San Francisco network this year. To put that into perspective, picture 50 Boeing 747s lined up wing to wing — that’s a lot of full bellies.
THE FOOD BANK SUPPLIES food for a network of 450 partner organizations, including 47 neighborhood pantries in Marin County. Millions of pounds of fresh, seasonal produce come from the California Association of Food Banks’ Farm to Family program, which connects growers with local food banks. Around 30,000 volunteers donate what time they can to help sort and pack food at the warehouses every year — the equivalent time that 71 full-time employees would put in. “We estimate that 30,000 families are fed by the SF-Marin Food Bank each week and 225,000 people are nourished each year,” says Mark Seelig of the food bank. The warehouses are open all year round, with the exception of Christmas and New Year’s Day. Some of the warehouse staff (there are some hired employees including everything from executives and directors to forklift drivers and heavy lifters) come in as early as 3 a.m. to begin loading and unloading the various trucks and vans for morning shipments. Most of the produce enters and leaves a warehouse within five days. “The warehouse floors oftentimes look like a giant Tetris screen, if you will,” says Seelig. “The warehouse team is constantly figuring out which items need to be moved, when they need to be moved, what items can stay, how long an item can last, and how the constant stream of new food coming in on a daily basis can be inventoried and stored properly.”
LARGE BAGS OF PRODUCE and grains are received on a regular basis. Volunteers work in an extremely sanitary environment, dividing quantities of these bulk food items into family-size portions. There are many ways to participate all year long in order to help end hunger. One way is to donate money to the food bank. People can also offer to volunteer at a warehouse or one of many community food pantries in the area. Some have even donated their cars to the cause. As those who struggle with hunger continue to be identified, the need to assist those people grows every year. Many volunteers have been donating their precious time for many years and some were in need of assistance themselves at one time in their lives. Others just enjoy giving back when they can. It takes countless volunteers to help deliver 50 million pounds of food per year, and more hands to distribute more goods are always appreciated. “Truly, none of what we do is possible without those who give up time from their busy schedules and work tirelessly to help others,” Seelig says.