By Marissa Willman
About 8 million pounds of food was distributed by FIND Food Bank of Indio throughout eastern Riverside County last year, and with about one in seven people in the United States being food insecure, the food bank will distribute another 8 million pounds throughout the region this year.
“We don’t have enough food to throw at this problem,” said Mitch Nieman, development director at FIND Food Bank.
A person is considered food insecure when one’s eating patterns are disrupted due to lack of money or other resources for food. Nieman said many people think the face of food insecurity looks similar to what one might think is the face of homelessness, but the majority of the people the food bank serves actually come from households where both parents work jobs paying minimum wage. Just seven percent of the food bank’s demographic is homeless.
“The majority of the demographic we serve is the working poor, seniors and kids,” Nieman said.
The food bank’s proactive approach provides healthy meals to those in need, combined with case management, education and outreach programs. The food bank also works with farmers both local to the Coachella Valley and across the state to provide fresh produce to locals in need.
“The whole idea is to distribute a healthy meal,” Nieman said. “More than half of what we distribute is healthy product and the majority of it is produce.”
FIND also provides case management through its CalFresh outreach program. Representatives go to extremely rural, underserved areas and help people to not only sign up for CalFresh but to learn how to wisely use the program. Clients are taught how to shop wisely, and over 1500 applications were approved last year through FIND’s outreach program.
“It brought about a $1.8 million benefit to the area,” Nieman said. “These people get their food stamps and spend their dollars at local grocers, so local grocers benefit. The economic multiplier is huge.”
FIND Food Bank, which works under the national charity Feeding America, is the only food bank that serves eastern Riverside County. The organization started in 1983 out of a garage in Cathedral City and has since grown to a 36,000-square foot warehouse in Indio with full walk-in refrigeration and freezer units. The food bank works with over 110 non-profit partner agencies, such as food pantries, homeless shelters and schools, to provide emergency food and case management services to over 80,000 people from Cabazon to Blythe and from the high desert to Anza-Borrego.
In 2008, the food bank distributed about 5 million pounds of food. Last year, FIND distributed 8 million pounds of food and this year, the food bank is on track to match that figure
“We’ve experienced a great demand in the last three years or so,” Nieman said. “Food banking inversely proportions economic development. When times get tough, our business goes up.”
FIND acquires its food in a variety of ways, with just a small amount of product coming from food drives. About 90% of the food bank’s overall product is donated while just 10% is purchased. Through Feeding America, the food bank is able to acquire deeply discounted products from food manufacturers such as Tyson, who provides chicken breasts and thighs by the pallet.
The food bank’s also dispatches its fleet of five trucks to rescue food in the valley. The trucks go to local grocers, such as Vons or Trader Joe’s, to get expiring products such as salads or breads. Rescued products account for nearly half of the food FIND distributes annually.
FIND also receives about 2.5 million pounds of USDA commodities per year. Through the federal program, farmers are paid to produce fresh produce and canned meats for food banks. Due to budget constraints, USDA commodities are down by about 800,000 pounds this year.
During the summer months, FIND sees fewer products from each of these programs. Food manufacturers provide less food in the summer as they readjust their inventories for the coming year. Local grocers purchase fewer products in the summer months, leading to less food being available for rescue. And with little rainfall this year, farmers are limited in what they can produce this summer.
Additionally, many of the food bank’s donors have headed north for the summer and the fundraising season is over. At the same time, demand for FIND’s services goes up in the summer. The migrant farmer population needs more food assistance as the fields dry up in the summer and as schools gear up for summer break, tens of thousands of children will add to the food bank’s demand.
“We have over 68,000 children in this valley who are on free or reduced-price lunches,” Nieman said. “For some children, school lunch is their only consistent meal of the day. When they go home for summer break, there’s no food.”
To ensure these children don’t go hungry, FIND designed a $300,000 program that distributes 1.2 million pounds of food to agencies such as the YMCA that administer summer programs for school-aged youth.
“For 68,000 kids, that may only translate to an apple and a yogurt or string cheese a day,” Nieman said, “but it’s something. It’s a healthy snack.”
The summer program is largely funded by proceeds from the food bank’s March run/walk fundraiser and its April telethon on CBS Local 2. The proceeds from these events also helps fund the Senior Brown Bag program, which provides a comprehensive bag of food to homebound seniors on a weekly or monthly basis.
The food bank also hopes to begin servicing areas known as “food deserts” with its new mobile pantry, a truck equipped with refrigeration and a freezer that was donated by Kraft Nabisco at this year’s Kraft Nabisco Championship. Nieman hopes to see the truck provide street-level food distribution in underserved areas and also at their agencies that do not have refrigeration capability. Nieman said with the new mobile pantry, chicken, milk, eggs and other refrigerated goods could be distributed to agencies that have been restricted to non-refrigerated goods. Although the truck was donated, the food bank needs to raise program funds to be able to actually deploy the mobile pantry.
To continue providing emergency food to children, seniors and others who are food insecure, the food bank is continually fundraising and seeking donors. For every dollar raised, seven meals are provided to those in need. Volunteers are also needed in all aspects of FIND’s operations. Without donations and volunteers, the food bank would be unable to serve the food insecure population of eastern Riverside County. No matter what, Nieman believes the food bank must continue to operate.
“We can’t go away,” Nieman said. “If our doors were to shut tomorrow, 80,000 people wouldn’t get food.”
To donate or volunteer, contact FIND Food Bank at (760) 775-FOOD or visit their website at findfoodbank.org.