“In feeding the hungry, there’s a need for more than just a meal.” David Gerson retired as a Silicon Valley lawyer, knowing he wanted to work next on the social safety net. As the executive director of Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa, he is struck daily by the state of the two worlds he occupies. He moves between the affluence of Lafayette where he lives with his family, and the day-to-day interactions he has with people in need.
DG: What’s been most dramatic, has been the change in wealth distribution. It’s hard to rationalize. How can all this success exist alongside seniors who are struggling to make ends meet? Those over 55 face a a myriad of challenges. There’s no future for them in this economy.
One third of our clients are homeless. The rest are just getting by. With the housing crunch, they are left to pay market rent, then other bills. Food is one thing they can’t go without. We’re the only agency from the central to eastern part of the county that serves a hot meal Monday through Friday, and has a food pantry associated with it.
There are “loaves and fishes” everywhere, so if you google the name, you’ll get them in every state – we’re all using the same name but we are totally independent, unrelated (there’s a Loaves and Fishes Kitchen in San Jose, there’s one in Berkeley) we just happened to use the same name, it’s not copyrighted or protected because it’s from a passage out of the Bible. There’s a huge Loaves and Fishes in Sacramento that’s religious-based, we’re totally secular.
Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa has been operating more than 30 years, it started in 1983 by two women in Pittsburg who witnessed a family dumpster diving and said, that’s just not acceptable in our community, and they started serving food out of the back of their cars. After a year or two they realized the problem was bigger than they could address, so they organized a nonprofit so they could start raising money. And it’s grown over that time. I think we’ve served over four million meals since then. We serve roughly 160,000 meals a year, 13 -14,000 meals a month, 3-4,000 meals a week, depending on the time of year. We serve anyone who walks in the door, no questions asked.
In the last four years we’ve expanded our food pantry side. We have what’s called the “free table” we get a lot of donations from commercial food vendors like a Safeway or a Lucky or Trader Joe’s or Lunardi’s. So, we do get a lot of pastries and bread, and over the last year we’ve really increased our fresh produce, so people can take home fresh produce. It comes from three places. Some of it comes from the (Contra Costa) food bank, because they’re now focused on getting out more fresh fruit and vegetables. Second, we work with White Pony Express, they do food recovery in the county. That means they pick up food that can’t be sold, or is extra. For example, they go to a farmers market and a farmer is closing for the day and doesn’t want to take the remaining produce. They’ll bring it to us or to GRIP or Shelter, Inc. So they know who’s in need and they find out who has the excess. Thirdly, we also buy it. We have a grant from the county so that allows us to go to wholesalers and buy food to add more to our tables.
The Locations: We have five locations: Martinez, Bay Point, Pittsburg, Antioch, and Oakley. Through those five sites we average about 500 people a day. We also have three partner sites where we provide the lunch.
- In Walnut Creek, the Trinity Center, we provide the meals on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
- We also work with Opportunity Junction in Antioch, which is a nonprofit that trains people for office work, and they consistently have trainings of 20-30 students in their program that graduate every 90 days, I think. We provide them food during the training. They pick up food from our kitchen in Pittsburg, and these are people who are struggling, they are looking for jobs, to get skills, and improve their income, but they are all in need. Our lunch service helps them stretch their dollars.
- We also partner with the Rubicon program in Antioch, a program under AB 109 legislation to support non-violent offenders coming out of prison where they do job training and job search. So, when they’re in training, we provide their lunches. They come to our kitchen, pick up a tray. These are people who are transitioning out of incarceration into the broader community and they need help in stretching their dollars, too.
New Developments: We are partnering with other nonprofits to be both a dining room and a resource center. Organizations can set up a table in our dining rooms and share information about their services. For example we had a table recently with resources for homeless veterans. We partner with the food bank and with CalFresh (formerly Food Stamp program), because 50 percent of people who are eligible don’t know that they can access these resources.
We also have been doing outreach with cell phone companies. Part of the taxes you pay on your cell phone is an access tax for no-income, low-income individuals. They receive a free phone For example, there’s the Assurance program through Virgin Mobile. We gave out about 132 phones in March.
For health services, we partner with the dental program at Diablo Valley College, their dental program. They come to the dining room for screenings, refer to low cost cleanings and x-rays on a sliding scale. And, Hayward State’s nursing program provides diabetes screenings, for example.
Dining rooms are a community, as well. This is important. It’s a kind of therapy to be with other people. We also have bathrooms here.
Next year we’re hiring a resource coordinator. We piloted a program that’s wrapping up soon with a graduate student who reached out to clients. She put together a binder of resources, also. We will install a permanent outreach coordinator. Our part-time dining room managers get to know our clients well, but they aren’t trained in this kind of outreach. So we’re looking forward to having someone who goes to our sties and puts in 15-20 hours with outreach.
Funding: Ours is a foundation and donor approach. The Lesher Foundation gave us $100,000 to upgrade our facilities. We also receive $150,00 for operations at $50,000 a year. Most foundations want to fund programs, not necessarily the operating end.
Two programs we are working on now are, as I mentioned, the social worker outreach, and, we are also looking to build a culinary arts program. We are talking to the Y & H Soda Foundation about the culinary program, developing a curriculum for training right here in our kitchen. It’s a natural progression, we are already involved with culinary trainings in supporting Rubicon in two of our kitchens in Pittsburg and Antioch.
People may not realize the costs involved, because we get donations of food and time. But think about the costs of running five restaurants, and then some. We have trucks, our rent, our PG&E bill is huge. So, it’s not really a free lunch! We’ll continue our donor outreach to make it all happen.