by Sally Ooms
Things are winding down at the River City Food Bank at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. “But they are still coming,” says Executive Director Eileen Thomas. “We’ve had 156 today and will have more.” Volunteers hand out about 180 food bags a day to individuals and households,five days a week. By the end of the month, numbers will reach 5,200-5,500 households from the Sacramento area, she says.
“Especially in the summer, we have a lot. We see people in the summer we haven’t seen for months. Families with children have no lunch or breakfast available through the schools. That’s two extra meals a day and that’s tough for families that are already stretching to make ends meet.”
That population is a result of all different difficulties, like people “in between addresses” (her expression for homeless folks), and anyone who is so poor they can’t meet basic living expenses, like rent, utility bills, medical care or transportation costs. Eileen says a third of the people who come for food are the working poor. “People come to see us when they absolutely need to. Anyone with children and a minimum wage job will be at the food bank.”
River City is the oldest continuously serving food bank in Sacramento County. The concept is to provide healthy emergency food and other assistance such as referrals, senior programs, nutritional counseling, cooking classes and children’s snack bags.
Besides the areas for storage and pick up of food, the small space at 1800 28th Street, manages to house cubicles for people to talk about private issues with volunteers versed in the services that are available to help them become self-sufficient.
“We call this a choice food bank,” she says. “Most other food banks have prepackaged the food that recipients will get. Here they have a choice. Food is a personal thing. Maybe you don’t like canned potatoes. Here you can say that you don’t care for them, but that you really like diced tomatoes.
“We have personal shoppers who talk with the clients and treat them with respect as they go through the line. It takes about 20 volunteers a day to make this place hum.” Volunteers are the food bank’s lifeblood. Hundreds of them annually put in 11,000 hours of work helping stock the shelves and put together the bags for each individual or family moving through the line. Eileen calls the place a “food-in, food-out food bank. We buy food at a good price and we share it with others. When anything fresh comes in, it goes right out.”
They rely on food donations and surplus food donations. Staples they purchase on a bulk basis—peanut butter, tuna, eggs and dairy products. Most of their money comes from generous individuals and foundations.
Much care is taken to provide programs for the most vulnerable members of the community, like seniors. The food bank’s MIM program, Most Important Meal, offers weekly bags of healthy breakfast foods. They pack up and deliver kits—enough for a week—with V8 juice, crackers and cheese, granola bars, packaged and fresh fruit and gluten free granola. Eileen says the food bank is really filling a need for low-income seniors.
Then there are the BackSnacks for the kids, nutritious snack bags designed to tide children over the weekend when they might not be getting adequate food. These they deliver to seven schools in the area on Fridays during the school year.
Eileen takes me back to the area where food is stacked on shelves and the walls are lined with freezers and refrigerators. Fresh produce that day is cabbage, slaw, zucchinis and yellow squash, chopped salad with broccoli and bagged lettuce.
In cooperation with the Sacramento Natural Food Co-op and the Sacramento Cares Community Program, they educate clients about good food and healthful food preparation. The food bank gives recipes, this week for lentils. “It’s great protein,” says Eileen. “But lots of people don’t know what to do with them.”
CalFresh Outreach also assists food stamp recipients in obtaining food they need for good health, under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In short, the food bank takes advantage of as many resources as possible to educate clients about eating well on an inadequate budget. “People are often new to poverty,” Eileen says. “To spread the word, we go to fairs, schools, college campuses and WIC, (the USDA nutritional service program).”
Eileen describes her volunteers as fabulous. “We are really a volunteer-fueled operation.” And they have to be versatile. “Every day is different.” A day she remembers in particular is Oct. 21, 2010, when the building they occupied on 27th Street burned to the ground. The day after they were serving out of Goodwill truck. Soon after, Trinity Cathedral offered a space. When it became too little, the food bank moved across the street to a Sutter Medical Center facility. In 2011, they finally had enough money to purchase their present location.
“In downtown Sacramento, there is a need for food. Hungry people there have to make their way to Loaves and Fishes or us. Everywhere else is at churches outside the major city area, so you have to live close to light rail and bus lines or be able to drive the freeways.”
She is excited that the parking garage across the street will soon have the Sacramento Food Co-op as a tenant. “This will bring two types of diverse people (two economic bases) together. We want good food for everyone. They are a fabulous partner and it’s going to be even better when they are close.”
River City Food Bank keeps serving the growing number of people who come through the door. “If there is anything we can do to raise people out of poverty, we are dedicated to doing that—one less person is going to be hungry and be in line.”