Advancement must have its origin in a vision of the future, and so it was for Sara Griffen, executive director of the Imperial Valley Food Bank, who foresaw what needed to be done to better serve the area's needy families.
"This is such an exciting day," Griffen proclaimed to the 150-plus attending the grand opening of the new food bank building at 486 Aten Blvd. in Imperial on Oct. 18. "This facility is intended to serve the food insecure of the Valley for the next 30 years."
During the prior five years, Griffen recalled, she spent nearly half her time soliciting funds to help build the $6.5-million facility and was the steward of her benefactors’ largess. She said she also knows those resources buy time for the undernourished, including children who hold the promise of being the next leaders of the 21st Century.
From the podium of an outdoor pavilion Griffen introduced Terry Garner, member service director of the California Association of Food Banks. The local food bank is one of 41 members over which the umbrella organization has oversight. It is also one of 15 rural/remote food banks that overcomes adversity typically absent in better-served urban counterparts.
"It's a challenge here because of the harsh climate," said Garner. "But Imperial Valley has done amazing things. With this new facility you can now get deliveries from our major urban distribution centers (San Diego) to help more of our community. This facility says, ‘We care about our neighbors in need.’"
Lauren Reid, state association communications director and Garner's colleague, explained one in seven, or four million, in the state do not know where their next meal is coming from. Regardless of how federal programs may change with next year's presidential election, there is certain to be an uptick in demand of food bank resources, she added.
"Luckily, California has invested $20 million in food banks," said Reid. "With this facility you can share what works and what doesn't with other members of the association. So let us all say no to hunger."
The new warehouse, with twice the capacity of the prior county building, can now store more food and feed more families from Salton City to Ocotillo, out to Winterhaven, and many sites in between,
The local food bank serves about 21,000 each month, explained Alba Sanchez, its program manager. Where previously it provided eight to 10 items per family per month, it will now provide 22 items.
Unlike its predecessor, the new food bank is near a bus route making it easier for those using public transit to access it. It also has 42 distribution sites in the county, of which 10 are served by the food bank truck.
The effort of Griffen, the food bank staff and its supporters to get the new facility built earned high praise from county-level leaders.
"The best thing we can do is make sure nobody (in Imperial County) goes to bed hungry at night," said county Supervisor Michael Kelley. "We could never have found a better director than Sara Griffen. She is committed and accomplished. So let us do everything for our fellow man to make this a better and safer place to live in."
Ron Griffen, pastor of First United Methodist Church, performed a brief benediction and joked he is often introduced as the husband of Sara. Still, he had a serious message.
"It is our responsibility to care of one another," he said. "This building stands as a witness to our mission. Our job is to pay attention (to need in our midst), remain capable of awe, and inform the world about it. As we go from this place, before it, it's blessed, behind it, it's blessed, below it, it's blessed and around it, it's blessed. May grace and peace of God always be with us."
Following grand opening celebrations, Sara Griffen and John Levada, president of the food bank board of directors, performed the ribbon cutting ceremony and Levada led guests on a tour of the 28,000-square-foot warehouse.
Levada explained whereas the old warehouse, adjacent to the county jail on Clark Road south of El Centro, had no loading docks, the new one has two. Previously there was no cold storage, but the new building has 5,000 square feet of it, including a separate freezer. He also pointed out the containment room in which food can get a thorough inspection before distribution.
Other advantages include more than double the rack space now allowing for more than 700 pallets of food, an automated push-back system for pallets saves time and manpower, and large ceiling fans will keep the warehouse cooler.
"What's more, we didn't want to provide just a place to hand out food," stressed Levada. "We have a teaching kitchen on site. So now, once people get that food, they can learn how to get the most nutritional value from it when they are taught how to more efficiently prepare and preserve that food."
The teaching kitchen will be available for rental for corporate, academic or social events to generate a revenue stream.
Noting the food bank is on pace to distribute 5 million pounds of food this year, Levada said, "Our mission is to provide food for the needy of Imperial Valley. If we find it necessary we have the ability to expand but we hope we never have the need.”