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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Thinking Outside the Box: Mountain View's Community Services Agency was the beneficiary of San Jose-based Village Harvest's experimental approach when Village Harvest made the group part of its pilot project to help local needy residents grow their own fruit.

Still Hungry

A new community-based movement called 'community food security' is revolutionizing the way this country tackles its growing hunger problem. But is Silicon Valley getting left behind?

By Stett Holbrook

SILICON VALLEY residents are a generous lot.

Each holiday season when the call goes out to help feed the hungry, the South Bay digs deep. Food- drive barrels wheeled into business lobbies and school cafeterias are soon brimming with canned soup, dried beans, peanut butter and other nonperishable foods. Local supermarkets pitch in and donate an avalanche of frozen turkeys and damaged but edible food.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties collects the bounty and trucks it off to more than 750 food pantries, soup kitchens and other agencies that provide food to the hungry. Because of this generosity, Second Harvest's annual holiday food drive is the largest in the country. Last year the organization collected 1.7 million pounds of food and raised $3.9 million.

But in spite of this largess, the ranks of Silicon Valley's hungry are getting larger. Since 2001, the number of people Second Harvest serves has increased 40 percent.

And those numbers paint a surprising picture about the hungry in this area. Second Harvest Food Bank serves about 163,000 people a month, and nearly 60 percent of them are families with dependent children and 40 percent of those children are under 18. The homeless, by contrast, make up only 10 percent of Silicon Valley's hungry. It's estimated that one in four residents of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties are living on the edge of a financial disaster that could send them to the doors of a soup kitchen or food pantry, outlets supplied in large part by Second Harvest.

But as successful as Second Harvest's food drives are, the food it hands out to the needy is doing little to end hunger. In fact, leaders of the nonprofit organization say they have given up on solving the problem because the high cost of housing will always make the poor vulnerable to hunger.

"There's nothing we can do about that," says David Sandretto, Second Harvest's executive director.

In other words, hunger is here to stay.

However, a new strategy for feeding and helping the hungry is taking root around the country, and the assumption that hunger is permanent—long held within the food-assistance network—may prove short-sighted. While they continue to provide critical food assistance, a growing number of food banks across the country say there is something they can do.

Under the banner of "community food security," an emerging movement that places a premium on local, sustainable agriculture and self-sufficiency, these progressive food banks are stepping beyond their traditional role of distributing free food and going after the root causes of hunger and teaching people to feed themselves.

And while Silicon Valley is known for its entrepreneurial, innovative spirit, the region is only beginning to embrace this new wave of food activism with tiny organizations like Valley of Heart's Delight and Village Harvest. Some are saying Silicon Valley needs to catch up—and fast—if there's going to be any hope of finding real, long-term solutions to the hunger problem.

First Line of Defense

Founded in 1974, Second Harvest is a private nonprofit organization and has an annual budget of $20 million and 77 full-time employees. Its headquarters on Curtner Avenue in San Jose is a modern building that includes offices and a massive food warehouse. The organization has a second facility in San Carlos.

Most of the food bank's clients have jobs and are typically employed in service-sector jobs, including teaching and law enforcement. Few of Silicon Valley's hungry fit the popular conception of undocumented immigrants coming here to soak up meager welfare benefits—three quarters are U.S. residents.

Twenty-five percent of those the food bank serves have some college education. Twenty percent are over 65 years of age. While public assistance, such as it is, is available to those at the very lowest income levels, the working poor and seniors often aren't eligible for help, says Jenny Luciano, communications director for the food bank.

"We miss the fact that there is another segment of people," she says. "They fall through the cracks."

Once rent and utility bills are paid, there's often nothing left for food. "Food becomes a disposable income," she says. "Food is the first to go."

It's fortunate, then, that Second Harvest is the darling of local charities and is especially beloved by Silicon Valley's high-tech industry. Local tech firms give generously to the organization and its board of directors includes many executives from Silicon Valley corporations. Board president Keith Flagler is president of Phillips Semiconductor and vice president Deb Nelson is vice president of Hewlett-Packard. Former board presidents include ex-HP CEO Carly Fiorina and executives from Cisco Systems and Synopsis. Sandretto, Second Harvest's executive director, is a former government and community affairs executive for IBM.

"The reason that (local high-tech corporations) donate and suggest to their employees to donate and are involved with the food bank is because they feel it's well run and you get a good return for your investment," says Sandretto.

By a good return on their investment, he means the food bank efficiently distributes large quantities of food, manages its budget well and makes good use of its employees and volunteers. He also believes the food bank is successful because of its single-minded focus on feeding the hungry. The food bank's mission statement is succinct: rallying community resources to assist people who are hungry in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

"I think our donors like the simple mission," he says.

Sandretto says the board of directors has discussed moving beyond its traditional food distribution role into job training and lobbying for anti-poverty and anti-hunger legislation and other activities.

"The decision has been 'no.' We stick with food and hunger."

Second Harvest partners with many social service agencies that fight poverty, lobby for affordable housing and provide job training, and Sandretto believes they're best suited to that kind of work. Plus, he fears that moving beyond food distribution could weaken the food bank's effectiveness.

"We don't need to be a jack of all trades, master of none," he says.

Asked if he thinks Second Harvest will ever be so successful that it puts itself out of business Sandretto says no. Before the real estate boom of the 1990s there was a time when idealistic board members imagined a day when the food bank could end local hunger, but those dreams disappeared when housing prices began to rise out of control. The median price for a home in Santa Clara County is around $700,000.

"It's just economics," he says.

The New Crusade

But could a change in the way the food bank executes its mission create a more lasting solution to Silicon Valley's hunger problem by helping the hungry help themselves?

Andy Fisher, executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition, says holding food drives and handing out food isn't enough given the severity of this country's hunger problem.

"Food banks need to work to put themselves out of a job," he says. "If they're just moving food, they're not doing that."

Advocates for community food security are pushing not just for a locally based food economy that provides nutritionally sound food, but also for a system that's based on self-reliance, environmentally sound methods and social justice. It's both a goal and a method.

"Fundamentally, community food security is about sustainable agriculture that's based on a community approach," says Fisher.

There's a small but growing number of food banks throughout the United States that have embraced community food security and are proving it's possible to do more than simply "moving food."

In Georgia, the Atlanta Community Food Bank has a staff person who provides technical assistance to more than 150 community gardens to teach Atlanta residents to grow their own food. The South Plains Food Bank of Lubbock, Texas, owns a five-acre farm and a 2,500-tree apple orchard and has developed five community gardens to help farm volunteers become more self-sufficient by growing their own food and farming for local markets. The food bank also has a program for local youth in which they tend the farm, growing food for local markets and the food bank while learning valuable life skills. And in Pennsylvania, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank has created a network of farm stands in low-income neighborhoods. The food comes from local growers who sell the produce to the food bank at prices between wholesale and retail. The farm stands in turn buy the food from the food bank at cost and are asked not to mark up their prices more than 10 percent. The best part is the farm stands employ local residents who gain valuable business skills that prepare them for other jobs. In fact, many of these workers have gone on to work in supermarkets and other retail outlets.

"Food banks have embraced a broader strategy of providing food assistance beyond our historical food aid activities to include efforts in community building, sustainability and supporting self-reliance among our recipients," says Robert Forney, president and CEO of America's Second Harvest, in the preface to a new report on food banks and community food security. America's Second Harvest is essentially the food bank for food banks and it coordinates the distribution of food to more than 200 local food banks, including Second Harvest.

The report, "Building the Bridge: Linking Food Banking and Community Food Security," was written by the Los Angeles-based Community Food Security Coalition and profiles innovative food banks that are addressing the immediate needs of the hungry as well as working toward longer-term solutions to hunger through community-based solutions such as legislative advocacy, working with local farmers, growing food and promoting farmers markets.

Fisher admits the concept is not yet a household word. But with the nation's worsening obesity crisis, the rise of organic agriculture and books like Fast Food Nation casting America's food system in a critical light, it may not be long before it is. At the American Planning Organization's annual conference in San Francisco earlier this year, the professional group held seminars on community food security for the first time.

"We're starting to break down some of the barriers," says Fisher.

Left Behind?

With an increasingly tattered social safety net, food banks are the last resort for the hungry. Food stamps offer some relief to those who have fallen on hard times but the federal program is increasingly stringent and invasive and notoriously under-enrolled as a result. But expecting food banks to solve local hunger programs alone is not realistic. As the community food security movement grows, a number of small-scale but innovative programs have sprung up to provide the hungry with not only fresher, more nutritious food, but the tools to help them become self-sufficient so they can provide for themselves.

While she recognizes the important role food banks play in providing emergency food assistance, Christine Ahn, a fellow with Oakland's Institute for Food and Development Policy, says it's time to move to move beyond food banks in favor of alternative solutions to hunger. The Oakland-based nonprofit advocacy group, also known as Food First, seeks to "eliminate the injustices that cause hunger."

"I think putting all your eggs in one basket is not going to solve hunger," she says of food banks. "At some point we're going to have to move beyond that model."

In an article she co-wrote for Food First, Ahn argues our reliance on food banks distracts us from finding lasting solutions to hunger. What's more, many of the food companies that donate to food banks receive lucrative tax breaks and a burnished public image in spite of many corporations' poor working conditions and nutritionally poor food.

But Ahn's heartened to see the alternative vision offered by the growing community food security movement.

"As small as they are they're sprouting up all over the place," she says. California is a hot spot for community food security activism. Until you reach Silicon Valley, that is. San Francisco, the East Bay and Southern California have active community food security movements but the South Bay is off to a slow start.

"I think we're behind," says Susan Stansbury, project director for Valley of Heart's Delight, an organization that invokes the former glory of Santa Clara Valley's agricultural heritage to promote local, organically grown food. The project is part of the Foundation for a Global Community, Palo Alto-based educational nonprofit that is dedicated to "reconnecting people, the planet, and prosperity."

Valley of Heart's Delight works to establish community and school gardens, help people grow food in their backyards and improve the quality of food in schools with locally grown food. The organization has been working with Palo Alto Unified School District to change its food service program.

"People are really feeling the effects of a system breaking down," says Stansbury, citing a litany of problems such as the distance food must travel to reach markets, chemicals used to grow food and the corporate, increasingly centralized control of our food supply.

"I don't think it has to be that way," she says. "We do live in a land of plenty. We need to start building a system that works for all of us."

Stansbury also works with Village Harvest, a San Jose-based group that harvests fruit from people's backyards and distributes it to the hungry via Second Harvest and other outlets. While not as politicized as Stansbury, the organization has started distributing fruit trees to needy residents so they can grow their own food. While only a pilot project at this point, Village Harvest executive director Joni Diserens says the project got off to a great start. The organization gave away 35 fruit trees.

"We were worried that we'd be there with all these trees and no one would show up," says Diserens.

But people showed up in droves, some moved to tears as they took possession of their trees. The trees went to clients of the Community Services Agency, an organization that serves low-income residents in the Mountain View and Los Altos area.

"It was a very touching day," says Diserens. "We're just working at the grassroots level, going tree by tree, house by house to see if we can make a difference. Just one tree has so much potential," she says, adding that a fruit tree can provide food for a family of four for a month.

Given the response to the tree project, Village Harvest is considering giving out vegetable seedlings to increase people's self-sufficiency.

One of the most successful examples of community food security is Santa Cruz's Homeless Garden Project. Now in its 15th year, the Homeless Garden Project teaches the homeless and nearly homeless farming skills and well as gives them experience working in the garden's retail store, an outlet for products made from materials grown on the 3.5-acre West Side Santa Cruz farm. While in the three-year program, participants earn a modest income.

"We like to say we teach someone to plant a bean so they can feed themselves," says Dawn Coppin, executive director of the Homeless Garden Project. "They can take that experience whereever they go."

Jamie, a 41-year-old Ben Lomond resident who didn't want to give her last name, is in her first year of the program. The blonde-haired woman spoke with an easy smile as she planted flower seeds in the garden's nursery on a sunny day.

Originally from Lake Tahoe, she said she always wanted to work in horticulture but after she moved to Santa Cruz she found herself homeless, sleeping on friend's couches or wherever she could. With her training at the homeless garden, she is pursuing plans to become a landscape architect. She's particularly interested in edible landscaping.

"And I do know how to feed myself now," she says.

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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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