We live in an affluent county compared to much of the rest of the state.
And yet nearly a quarter of Santa Cruz County residents, about 65,000 people, receive food through the ever-present Second Harvest Food Bank in times of need.
The juxtaposition is not that difficult to understand with the cost of housing, the rental shortage and the continued inflation that has eroded the purchasing power of many county residents.
The Food Bank’s goal this year is to collect 4.5 million meals, Second Harvest Executive Director Erika Padilla-Chavez told the Sentinel’s editorial board last week. The food bank relies mostly on its annual holiday food and fundraiser to provide the food it distributes to 130 locations throughout the county. Holiday driving is now underway.
Over the years, Second Harvest became known for the familiar blue barrels where people who wanted to help dropped off food.
And the barrels are still there, but fewer by about 100 across the county this season, including on the job sites. Barrels remain a symbol of the quest for food – but cash donations are more effective and have no expiration date. The goal is to raise approximately $13.5 million to provide 4.5 million meals (last year the goal was 5 million meals). Inflation, with higher costs, now means that while $1 used to provide four meals, it now provides three.
Food insecurity in the county may have been at its peak during the pandemic, but since the plague receded, the nonprofit food bank, which had anticipated a big drop in demand, still sees significant numbers of local people relying on the organization for healthy and nutritious food. With the loss of support from the state and FEMA, Padilla-Chavez says this year’s food drive is “a real test of our post-pandemic reality,” adding that demand may be higher than 4.5 million meals, but “we have to let’s be realistic’ fundraising.
The food bank is also less than a year after last season’s floods, when again the organization was there quickly, along with other nonprofits, to help victims.
Padilla-Chavez, who took over as CEO a year and a half ago and is quick to tell the story of how as a child her own family received food aid, notes how the response to flooding and displaced people is a community effort. Volunteers helped in the evacuation centers, prepared hot food, filled sandbags and donated money. (The food bank was able to raise another $500,000 in a post-flood campaign.) The local food bank also worked closely with Monterey County nonprofits because the flooding in Pajaro was in that county.
Looking beyond the annual Holiday Drive, Padilla-Chavez advocates with local members of Congress to increase USDA support for food banks.
Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, is a co-sponsor of the Feeding America’s Farmers Act, a necessary bill that will help food banks meet demand and ensure families stay fed and healthy by expanding the ability of the USDA to purchase food directly from producers. The bill would significantly increase funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program for commodities like fruits and vegetables, as well as cash support for food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.
Second Harvest was also able to get a government grant to install a new food cooler.
About 40% of the food for the food insecure comes from Cal Fresh – much of the rest comes from the Food Bank, which works to get people into the state program (nearly 29,000 state residents are enrolled). The food bank also works with health care providers to identify food insecure patients.
“I often say that the Food Bank is not just the hardworking Second Harvest staff or generous donors or grateful recipients or volunteers, Second Harvest is the entire community — we are the Food Bank — and this organization belongs to all of us,” Padilla-Chavez wrote for this page.
And as she told us last week, “Every dollar counts.”
For more information or to donate to Second Harvest Food Bank’s annual holiday campaign and fund drive, visit thefoodbank.org.