Enjoying work as a home supportive services assistant until mid-August, Lupe Sanchez found pride helping the less fortunate, but now unemployed he appreciates there is a safety net provided by the Imperial Valley Food Bank.
Since he was laid off from work as a homecare provider Sanchez continues to search for similar employment. He derives much satisfaction helping the elderly and disabled monitor their health by taking their blood pressure, reminding them of medication or helping with chores.
But the monthly food baskets provided by IVFB and distributed through a partner nonprofit, Campesinos Unidos in Brawley, are a temporary yet critical reprieve to keep himself fed in challenging times.
"I'm thankful because it helps a lot, it will get me through the next few of weeks," said Sanchez. "There's a lot of unemployment right now in Imperial Valley."
As director of IVFB the prior eight years, Sara Griffin spends a third to one half her time soliciting support from benefactors. She admits IVFB is a steward of other people's money. Yet she knows that money buys time, especially for children of those in need, some with potential leadership if only they have the nourishment to nurture the seed of their talents.
Sara Griffin, Executive director of Imperial Valley Food Bank, which helps 20,000 residents address food insecurity, at their warehouse in El Centro, August 23.
Photo Credit: William Roller
"Your heart just goes out to them because they're so young and don't know how politics can impact food insecurity but experience teaches them about the inequities of who has and those that do not," she said. "This is hard work but it's good work, yet it needs to be done."
IVFB is a labor of love; with just 11 employees they rely on numerous volunteers to help feed the 18 to 20 thousand who are food insecure. On August 23, three female inmates from the Sheriff's Office detention center next door were helping to clean the warehouse. They also get help from group homes such as New Creations, the rehabilitation center.
For the last several years IVFB has distributed 4 million pounds of food per year to Imperial Valley residents. Nearly half of that comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's emergency food assistance program. Another 25 percent is donated by Imperial Valley farmers and the remainder comes from "fresh rescue", local grocery stores who donate product months before its expiration date.
Yet it is labor intensive as IVFB must use its own vehicles to collect and then distribute food to group homes, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, or the 14 apartment complexes where property managers, under training of IVFB, distribute groceries to their most indigent.
Ricardo Castillas, driver for Campesinos Unidos, helps distribute food donations to those who attended.
"We're pretty full now (warehouse) because the USDA started their new year deliveries August 1," said Griffin. "We got some broccoli from Mexicali yesterday. Our food tends to be fresher than the grocery stores because it comes straight from packing sheds."
But this year they received about 25 percent less produce from farmers because commodity prices were so low in spring growers could not afford the labor to harvest some crops.
The food bank requires $800 to $900 thousand a year to operate. Some of their go-to benefactors include Alliance Healthcare Foundation, Rest Haven Children's Health Fund and Wells Fargo Bank, their most consistent and intensive giving foundations.
"I have a list of 70 donors who give a check every month, through online-bill pay," said Griffin. "But we'd like to have a list with ten times as many sustaining benefactors."
Yet what preoccupies Griffin considerably since 2014 has been their transition to a new building in the Imperial Business Park at Aten and La Brucherie roads. It will have 28,000 square feet, more than twice their current capacity.
They already obtained $5.3 million of their $6 million goal and it is enough to cover the cost of construction. Remaining funds cover cost of operations since with a larger building they need more water, more utilities (rooftop solar to save energy) and increased staff to run operations.
"It'll give us much greater storage capacity and we nee a loading dock. Can you imagine doing 4 million pounds of food a year without it?" asked Griffin.
The new building is close to highways and has more parking. Also, they currently rely on some outdoor freezers yet need an airtight building to keep food from contamination. The new building solves some challenges, especially cold storage. Still, additional fundraising is needed to keep it stocked.
Back at Campesinos Unidos, Leticia Grosh, who has been working as a community liaison for 17 years, noted a lot in Brawley are in need. With the staples they provide: cooking oil, rice, carrots, canned chicken and soup, along with breakfast items, they keep 200 families fed through the month.
"Every month when we distribute food they are already in line," said Grosh. "They really count on us. They're good people with children and doing their best to raise them. I know them all by name and they are grateful for the services."
Last fall Griffin attended the opening of the Imperial Valley College pantry, which IVFB partners with and stocks food for the school's food insecure. Griffin called the pantry a brave experiment supporters dared to bring to reality.
"We'd like to ensure food security so students can progress to jobs and in turn provide jobs for others," she said. "Yet students must function fully nourished, so they are free to learn and dream."