On a recent Friday morning, the Community FoodBank of San Benito, is bustling. It’s pantry day, one of two days during the week when locals can visit the nonprofit to obtain healthy food. Fresh produce—green spinach, red peppers, orange carrots, nutty-brown bread—flies off the tables as customers push carts and inspect the produce, just like any other supermarket. The FoodBank, after 28 years in San Benito, has experienced a bit of a renaissance recently.
“There’s more food than we know what to do with,” says Mark Paxton, who has been director of community engagement and development at the FoodBank since July 2015.
The abundant, local market vibe is exactly what Randall Martin, house manager of six years, is aiming to achieve. “We want this to feel like any other retail experience. We’re trying to not have that same [food bank] model that’s gone on for 40 to 50 years.”
According to Paxton and Martin, that typical food bank model is “80/20 shelf stable produce,” meaning up to 80 percent of the food at a typical food bank can sit on a shelf for awhile, like canned food. But Paxton says, “We’ve turned that [model] upside down. About 80 is fresh, mostly organic. We’re really committed to sharing the kind of food we eat at home.” And they’ve been successful doing it. Last year, Paxton estimates that the FoodBank reached about 9,000 (or 1 in 6) people who live in San Benito County.
San Benito County is an expensive place to live. Rents are high, wages are low. MIT’s living wage calculator shows that one adult needs to earn $12.94 per hour to survive. But for many county residents, it’s hard to find a job with that paycheck.
The team at the Community FoodBank wants to make sure that no one goes hungry, even when paychecks aren’t enough. The FoodBank is not a government operation. It’s a local team working to ensure that the California food bounty is shared. “We’re the resource to get it out to the public,” says Martin. Paxton points out that in San Benito County, there is more than enough to go around. “We’re really fortunate. San Benito is located at the navel of the food factory universe. We’re able to distribute really good groceries.” Much of the food available is organic, and locally grown.
It’s easy for interested shoppers to sign up. During their first visit, newcomers fill out a short form and self-report their income. As long as their reported income is less than 80 percent of the median income in San Benito County, they are welcome to start shopping.
Paxton also says, “We’re proud that nationwide, American supermarkets throw out about 40 percent of the fresh produce they stock. But we’re under 10 percent.” In fact, any food the food bank does throw out is donated to farmers, who feed it to livestock. “We recycle the produce that isn’t going directly to consumers, as best we can,” Paxton says.
The FoodBank also runs several delivery programs, including delivering “backpack bags” to deserving students in county schools. Other volunteers deliver food to seniors around the county. “It’s a seven day a week operation,” Paxton notes.
And now, a $2.25 million construction project, started in April 2017, is on track to be completed in at the end of July. As Martin proudly walks around the space, he points out all the details that have gone into making the area “a friendly-family space, without it being institutionalized.” The new space will be filled with natural light from skylights, with many wide aisles for carts, and plenty of display places for the food. There will also be computer monitors set up, showing nutritional information and other useful health facts, as well as LED lights and all new landscaping.
Paxton and Martin share a refrain, “We just want to give the benefit out to people.” It is their belief that this new space will help them do it.
“Food banks are as unique as the communities that they occupy,” says Paxton.
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