Worn out from organizing her brother’s memorial service after his sudden death, LaToya Rowe’s face brightened when a neighbor knocked on her door to deliver a box of food. “Oh now I feel better,” she smiled. A single mother who works at a local retail warehouse, Rowe said a produce basket delivered weekly helps stretch her budget and keep her connected to neighbors.
“In these baskets we get things like cabbage, lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, squash, a variety of fruits,” Rowe described as she unloaded perfect nectarines into bowl. “A week ago we got collard greens. I’m into my culture and that was a blessing. It was a godsend. And we got Brussel sprouts. I know a lot of kids don’t like Brussel sprouts but my daughter happens to love them. So yes it means a lot to us to have the variety of fruits and vegetables.”
Rowe’s godsend comes from local farmers, food processors and grocery stores in Fresno who provide produce they can’t use or must turn over before it will sell. Fresno Metro Ministry redistributes the food through its “Food to Share” program.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, the non-profit has seen a big increase in the number of families struggling to buy food or secure their next meal. Community Medical Centers recently invested its community benefit funding to help Metro Ministry grow the program to keep up with need.
Among the nation’s top ranked food hardship areas
Fresno consistently ranks in the top five metro areas in the nation for percentage of households that struggle to afford food or who do not have enough food, according to Food Research and Action Center. The food policy and advocacy center teams up with Gallup to survey the nation’s urban centers on food insecurity issues. More than 25% of Fresno County residents live below the federal poverty level.
Recent statistics from Central California Food Bank show that the coronavirus pandemic has increased the region’s food insecurity; it saw a 43% jump in food distribution in April from the year before and 25% of people showing up in food lines had never sought emergency food help before, said Kim Dildine, co-CEO of the Central California Food Bank.
“Fresno California is in one of the richest food production areas in the world and we recently ranked as the third highest food hardship metropolitan area in the United States,” said Keith Bergthold, executive director of Fresno Metro Ministry. “How does that happen? It happens because of poverty and because supermarkets have moved out of West Fresno and other parts of our community leaving people adrift in terms of access to healthy food. And we discovered millions of pounds of food are being wasted every year here, and yet people are going hungry.”
Metro Ministry’s food redistribution program seeks to address that inequity with the help of Community Medical Centers. The healthcare system has contributed significant community benefit funding to the effort.
Economic insecurity that leads families (and children in particular) to struggle with food scarcity was identified as one of the most pressing health needs in the region. Community’s support of Metro Ministry is just one part of the community benefit investments Community provides annually as a non-profit hospital system and the Valley’s safety net healthcare provider. In fiscal year 2019, Community invested $174 million, about 11% of its operations budget, on such direct-funding, outreach, medical training, public education and unreimbursed and charity care.
A million pounds of saved food shared annually
Food to Share was redistributing a million pounds of food annually before the coronavirus pandemic, said Bergthold. “But with the right investment we have the chance to do tens of millions of pounds. We’re so proud to work with Community Medical Centers to ramp this up.”
Currently Food to Share collects from grocers, food processors, Fresno Unified and Central Unified school districts and drops off food at 49 churches and community based organizations that have long-standing food giveaway programs. “Last year we rescued 600,000 lbs. of food from just 28 FUSD schools. It might be packaged apples and pears or cucumbers,” Bergthold described. “We bring empty totes and the students actually collect food from lunch time that kids haven’t opened and sort it for us. We take out full totes.”
Bergthold continued, “This is about food waste and feeding the hungry, but it’s also about the environment. The food we waste gets buried in landfills and then decomposes and gets released as methane gas into the environment. For every pound of food we save and get to someone who needs it, we’re eliminating 2.2 lbs. of greenhouse gas.”
Just because much of the food would normally be destined for a landfill, doesn’t mean it’s not good food. “It’s really beautiful food that will last a long time,” said Bergthold. “We’ve built relationships with our partners that now they’ll give us food well in advance of the expiration date.”
Milk, frozen meat, yogurt cups and bakery items are regularly part of the 38,000 lbs. of food that the Smart & Final store at Valentine and West Shaw avenues donated during the first six months of 2020. It’s food no longer suitable for retail, but still good for consumption, explained Smart & Final Regional Manager Jim Wood. He estimated the store has provided the equivalent of 31,000 meals this year.
“What makes this remarkable is that this store was so committed to this program, they didn’t stop donating at any point during the pandemic,” said Wood, who oversees several stores. “We’re committed to giving back, improving the quality of life and nourishing the communities we serve.”
Generosity and sharing from neighbor to neighbor
Jackie Holmes, who calls herself “the boss” of her El Dorado Park neighborhood, is on the receiving end of the Smart & Final’s generosity. She helps organize the weekly food delivery among the collection of subsidized housing and low-cost apartments near Fresno State’s campus.
Holmes estimates 1,800 people living in her little neighborhood regularly benefit from the Food to Share program. But Holmes always makes sure to reserve extra for those who might show up from outside the area. On a recent Thursday it was a Syrian refugee family with 10 kids. And Holmes had a box of fruit ready when a Fresno community police officer stopped while on patrol.
“The people who do the work and handing out are the residents themselves here,” said Holmes as she directed 16-year-old Michael Lopez to drag a wagon full of food boxes to the next apartment. She reminded him he had another 10 minutes to help deliver before he had to get back to his high school class online.
“Last week we saved a pallet of food to take up to Prather to help with people displaced from fires. When the Metro Ministry vans go up the hill, my truck goes too with kids from here to help deliver. Everyone needs to experience giving as well as getting,” Holmes said.
Holmes, who was a Metro Ministry board member years ago, has a long history of involvement with community organizing. She lives by a saying written on chalk board in one of her old community centers and tries to mentor the young people around her to do the same: “Come as you are. Give what you can. Take what is offered. There’s enough for everyone.”
She said Food to Share certainly is teaching the next generation in her community “that it’s all going to be all right.”