At 40, the county’s indelible Second Harvest Food Bank reaches a significant milestone. And the fight to eradicate hunger has never been stronger.
Aisles of stacked pallets, crates, and cardboard boxes filled with rice, beans, pineapples, canned food, foods of every kind, stretch out as far as the eye can see. This is the massive warehouse of the Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB) in Watsonville, and it is buzzing with activity. Volunteers remove plastic film from crates full of bananas to prevent them from spoiling. Workers zip by in orange forklifts, packing orders into trucks destined for the Davenport Resource Center, the Salvation Army, Padres Unidos, or any one of the 200 agencies SHFB serves.
A man stands beside a box of watermelons that bulge from the top of a 5-foot-tall crate. “This is like the Nile,” he says, smiling broadly. “It’s where all the food comes [together] for all the different programs in the county.”
This is Willy Elliott-McCrea, who has worked with the food bank as one of its fiercest advocates since its birth in the ‘70s (back then it was simply called the Food Bank), and he has been its chief executive officer for 23 years.
“We have about 900 pallet positions,” he says. “This is all the food that comes in through food drives, collections, donations—everything that’s collected in the county just gets passed through us. We get some food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some from the various grocery stores, farms. … We just got a really nice juice donation from Martinelli’s [S. Martinelli and Co.], so we’re very excited about that.”
The bustling food hub ships out truckloads of produce, canned goods, beverages and other food goods—from proteins to starches— to more than 200 local programs and agencies in need, with the help of thousands of volunteers each year—and hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours. It distributes more than 7.5 million pounds of food annually, and each month it keeps more than 55,000 people in the county from going hungry (half of which are children).
“We have 100 that we call member agencies, 50 soup kitchens, shelters, and church pantries, and then we have 50 programs like drug and alcohol rehab, childcare, senior group homes, etc.” Elliott-McCrea explains. “They all come through the Food Bank every week and pick out the food they need for their programs.”
All this is significant, but it is only a glimpse of what makes the local food bank stand out. It also happens to have been the first food bank in California history. This month, it celebrates four decades of fighting hunger with a 40th anniversary event on July 20, complete with keynote speakers, a barbecue lunch and tours of the facility. Speakers at the event include Food Bank Founder Michael Alexander, Ken Kannapan, Plantronics Inc.’s CEO (Plantronics is one of the Food Bank’s biggest supporters), and Vicki Escarra, CEO of Feeding America.
While the SHFB is now thriving, it emerged from humble beginnings, which Elliott-McCrea reveals with a photograph from the ‘70s. It shows the Food Bank’s warehouse being less than a quarter of its current size with shabby tarp hanging over an outdoor loading area.
“We can’t believe that it’s such a nice warehouse, because we just made do for so many years,” he says.
A Cauliflower Catalyst
The epic tale of the first-ever food bank in California, and its grassroots journey of 40 years, begins with the Black Panthers, a man named Al DiLudivico, and an abundance of cauliflower.
It all began in the ’60s. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society social reform programs had set out to eliminate poverty and racial injustice, and CBS broadcasted its famous Hunger in America series. Among several community programs that sprung up at this time, the Black Panthers launched a national program dubbed Free Breakfast for School Children. The show recruited people in low-income regions to open their home kitchens and feed children that were on their way to school in the morning.
DiLudivico, who helped start The Catalyst in 1966 (it was originally a coffeehouse collective), was hired to manage Breakfast for Kids in Santa Cruz. The program eventually died out—largely at the hands of the U.S. government, which assailed the program as a propaganda tool used by the Black Panthers to carry out a Communist agenda. However, DiLudivico took to the idea of feeding Santa Cruz’s hungry and ran with it. In 1972, he recruited Michael Alexander, a volunteer from Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a national service program designed specifically to fight poverty. Together the duo founded what is now known as Second Harvest Food Bank. It set up camp in a modest-sized, shared office-warehouse on Harvey West Boulevard in Santa Cruz.
Over the phone from his home in Florida, the 65-year-old Alexander tells Good Times how he remembers driving in a flatbed pickup truck called “Buckwald,” the Food Bank’s only vehicle, to pick up leftovers at Roy’s Market in Felton. He recalls handing out three-day-supply grocery bags of emergency food to more or less 100 people every month—mostly single people who were behind on paychecks, transients and only a couple of families.
The Food Bank really began to take shape on a fateful day in 1973 when a dispatcher from Frank S. Oliver and Son, a grower, shipper and processor of fruits and vegetables in Watsonville, picked up the phone and dialed their number.
“I actually answered the phone that day,” Alexander remembers. “If anybody was the founder of Food Bank it was her [the dispatcher]. She picked up the phone because she could not stand the thought that 56 tons of cauliflower were going to get thrown out.”
When Alexander visited the Oliver and Son warehouse to assess the cauliflower donation, he says the room looked like the warehouse in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. “All these guys were driving forklifts in parkas, and there I was wearing my Santa Cruz clothes and freezing,” he recalls. “I was wearing Birkenstocks and my Grateful Dead T-shirt, which I’m wearing right now, by the way.” He laughs. “It took up just a little tiny corner of the warehouse, but it was 4,000, 40-pound boxes.”
In order to handle the enormous cauliflower donation, the Food Bank began looking for people in other parts of the state who were doing similar work. Alexander says he made more than 300 phone calls and connected for the first time with other small food banks in surrounding regions. Eventually, they reached about a dozen organizations interested in receiving the cauliflower.
The historical father of food banking, John Van Hengle from Phoenix, Az., connected with Food Banking in California via the cauliflower donation. He picked up about one-third of the load to distribute. Not long afterward, the phones at the tiny Food Bank on Harvey West Boulevard began ringing. Other people wanted to know what else it had. From there, the Food Bank grew. Alexander and his colleagues began showing up at factory farms and suggesting that they take home unwanted produce. “We found plenty of food. We found growers that were giving us all kinds of things—from Salinas, Watsonville growers and San Benito County,” he says. “We used to take our first truck, which was a flatbed truck and only held 12 1,000-pound bins, six on bottom, six on top.”
The various food banks of California that sprouted also remained connected, trading goods back and forth.
“From Sacramento came cherries, from Hollister came onions, from Merced, sweet potatoes, Southern California, oranges—all that kind of stuff,” Alexander notes. “Other food banks would bring half-dozen bins of whatever they had, and they’d bring two, leave two, and take bins of whatever we had. So all over the state everybody had a little bit of everything. It was pretty cool.”
Alexander stayed with the Food Bank for a decade as it moved from Santa Cruz to Aptos. It eventually landed in Watsonville in 1981, again, in modest surroundings—a small packing shed—and would soon find itself growing considerably in its new, official home base.
“It made sense to move there because the most needy people were in Watsonville,” Alexander says. “We were feeding migrant workers that couldn’t afford to buy the same food they were harvesting every day. I’d imagine it’s the same today.”
At the time of the Food Bank’s origins, Alexander says nobody involved had any idea that the project would even be around after 40 years, much less grow. “We didn’t think of ourselves as cutting edge or anything,” he says. “It was pretty obvious what to do when things started happening.”
He also recalls somebody calling him the “Father of Food Banking” a while ago, and he looked around to see whom he or she was talking about. “You get yourself called a founder, and you think ‘How am I a founder?” he says. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
After Alexander’s wife passed away at 32 due to complications from a brain tumor, he suddenly became a single father, and in 1983, he moved back to Florida to be closer to his mother and to work on various social programs in the area. Alexander’s departure affected the Food Bank—it went through four program directors in four years and suffered large deficits from 1983 to 1988.
But a new arrival would prove to be fruitful. Enter Willy Elliott-McCrea.
As the Food Bank’s new director, he began the Holiday Food Drive program, recruited 10 VISTA volunteers, and changed the Food Bank’s mission to “ending hunger and malnutrition by educating and involving the community.” But when the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake devastated the region, it was the Food Bank that organized one of the most impressive massive relief efforts. The epicenter of the earthquake was five miles away from the Food Bank, and 900 homes in Watsonville were affected.
“People didn’t really know we existed before the quake,” Elliott-McCrea says. “Most of the destroyed homes had about three or four or five farm worker families in them, so, there were about 25,000 people living in the parks for several weeks. We received as much food in two weeks as would have normally in a year. I’m not as old as I look—my hair turned gray two weeks after the earthquake, when I was 35.”
The Food Bank received 2 million pounds of food and $500,000 in two weeks. After the earthquake collection, it changed its name to Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB). Five years ago, Alexander, the Food Bank’s founder, returned to visit for the first time in more than 20 years. He says he couldn’t believe how far it had evolved.
“If I had stayed there for 35 years, what Willy did would have been my dream to do,” he says. “He has done an incredible job, just incredible.”
Take note: Alexander returns to the area and is slated to speak at SHFB’s 40-year anniversary commemoration on July 20. “I’m amazed that I’m still invited to come back 40 years later to something that I had a hand in starting,” he says. “It’s still there, and it’s grown by so much, and done such a good thing for so many years. You can’t say that about many things.”
Grinding Out Hunger
Leftover produce was the main ingredient of the Food Bank in the early days, but things began to change in the ’80s when President Ronald Reagan cut welfare and school nutrition programs. It was at that time that ketchup was also declared a vegetable, and the USDA held a momentous cheese and butter giveaway. The food that SHFB distributed shifted from primarily produce, rice and beans to foods that were heavy in empty calories and saturated fats. By the time the ’90s hit, the obesity crisis was gaining traction, and by 2000, diabetes rates had reached epidemical heights. Elliott-McCrea became the founding president of the California Association of Food Banks from 1995-1998 and decided to launch several programs to increase the Food Banks’ healthy food intake.
These days, the Food Banks’ focus is on ending hunger in a healthy way.
“When we started, we were primarily concerned about feeding people enough calories to survive,” says Elliott-McCrea. “Now we’re focused on teaching people to pack their plate with vegetables and eat healthy.” As he speaks, he steps through a doorway at the Watsonville lair that is more than twice the usual height, and into a refrigerator that is about a thousand times the typical size. Then he picks out a carrot from a 4-foot by 4-foot cardboard box that is brimming over with the root vegetable.
“What you have to realize is we’re not a ‘food bank’—really,” he says. “We’re a nutrition bank. The definition of hunger in America has changed, because it used to be … not enough calories. Now, it’s too many calories, not enough nutrients, which explains the paradox of having obese people who are hungry.
“Because if you eat cookies, soda, carbs, which is what is cheaply available, you’re actually more hungry, not less hungry. My answer is not about how many are going hungry, but how many people lack access to healthy food because all they can afford is cheap food. We feed 55,000 people a month in Santa Cruz County.”
He also points out that a donation of $1 can feed a family of four, which often can be more effective for a family in need than dropping off only a can of food. It’s interesting to note how that is actually possible.
Because the Food Bank works with a network of 3,000 volunteers who operate 300 food distribution programs in Santa Cruz County, there is a significant distribution network structure in place—all owned and operated by volunteers from all walks of life throughout the county. Additionally, Elliott-McCrae says what the Food Bank does is “based on tremendous partnerships with the agriculture and food industries that contribute good, healthy food they can’t sell for some reason.
“We have extraordinary access that I don’t think anybody else has,” he adds. “The USDA says to growers and shippers, ‘You can only sell Grade A produce,” but Grade B is given to food banks for a very small handling fee. In the past year, we received 2 million pounds of food, packed for market, and donated. We received an additional 3 million that was unmarketable because it was Grade B, meaning it was not unblemished, etc. We fundraise to be able to acquire this 3 million pounds of Grade B food that came from packing houses.”
The Food Bank receives it nearly three days fresher than grocers like New Leaf or Nob Hill markets for 8 cents a pound. It’s interesting to note, too, that before SHFB installed its solar-powered produce cooler, and a neighboring minus 20-degree giant freezer, in 2008, it turned away two semi trucks of fruits and veggies each week.
“We have extraordinary buying power,” he says. “I call it food bank magic.”
The incoming produce is supported in part by AG Against Hunger, a Salinas-based nonprofit that Elliott-McCrea co-founded in the ’90s with locals Jess Brown and Tim Driscoll. The nonprofit is based around the fact that more fruits and vegetables are grown, packed and shipped on the Central Coast of California than in any other region in the world. It collects surplus produce from Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz County growers, and then distributes the fresh goods to food banks throughout the West Coast.
In recent years SHFB has shifted its intake from 70 percent shelf-stable foods to 65 percent perishables. “You can see it’s just beautiful stuff,” says Elliott-McCrea, pointing to a brilliant red bell pepper.
While SHFB now has a vigorous supply of healthy foods, the downward spiraling economy has it facing a whole barrel of new challenges. Before the recession hit in 2008, the Food Bank was feeding 35,000 people a month. Now it’s feeding 20,000 additional people.
The Food Bank’s food distribution is currently up 21 percent from 2007, and 60 percent from 2000 due to rising poverty rates. It’s a significant figure, but there’s another dilemma—food donations are in decline as supportive agencies are struggling and many former donors now need food assistance. Additionally, unemployment rates in the South County are up from 5.6 percent in 2000 to 12 percent, and food prices are also on the rise.
So, where’s the levity?
The Food Bank’s current revenue sources are a mixture of foundation grants, government funding, donations, reimbursements and fees. However, it is also seeking additional funding to meet the growing community need. One thing that stands out is SHFB’s cultivation of a peer-led community within the Food Bank. Programs like Passion for Produce and Nutrition Ambassadors encourage clients of the Food Bank to educate each other about nutrition.
“We have all these wonderful snack and lunch programs at the schools, which we’re really excited about,” Elliott-McCrea adds, noting that most programs are run by client-volunteers who benefit from the Food Bank’s programs.
As Elliott-McCrea points to a kitchen inside the Food Bank’s Nutrition Education Center, which they built in 2009, he goes on to explain that, “People come here and learn to use different fruits and vegetables, things like how to cook a quesadilla using zucchini.”
And then there’s Danny Keith, owner of Santa Cruz Skate and Surf. The local, voted Best Mover and Shaker in last year’s GT Readers’ Poll, is the chief development and technology officer for SHFB. And his passion to combat hunger is often admired.
“If we’re the emergency food-assistance program, then we should be providing the best possible food we can,” Keith says. “That kind of leads us into teaching people how to eat healthier, and educating those people about why eating healthy will improve their opportunity to get a job, it will improve their opportunity to stay healthy, and just overall make their life a little bit better to live.”
Keith first became acquainted with SHFB in 2003 when he kept a donation barrel for one of its food drives in his skate and surf shop. At the end of the drive, when he noticed that nobody put any food into the barrel, he started brainstorming on ways to get the action sports community involved in the cause.
“At the time one in eight kids were going hungry,” he says. “It really upset me.”
The following year, Keith started the food drive program Grind Out Hunger, designed to encourage kids in Santa Cruz schools to gather donations on behalf of their peers. It was a bold endeavor that found him speaking at local schools, where he would motivate the kids to help themselves and their community.
“I explained, these are their friends going hungry, and it isn’t their choice,” he says. ‘It’s their circumstance, so we need to help them with that.”
Grind Out Hunger has grown considerably from school holiday food drives to a curious local enigma—an action-sports and music/entertainment-driven nonprofit that, in 2011, received County School Board Resolution No. 11-14, which officially recognizes and congratulates the efforts of the program and schoolchildren involved.
Additionally, things will shift at Santa Cruz Skate and Surf, which is slated to morph into the Grind Out Hunger headquarters. There will be a retail-infused skate ramp, music stage, and, Keith says, a real opportunity for the kids of Santa Cruz County to come to the facility and do community service.
“It’s really going to be a facility for the kids to congregate around ‘kids helping kids,’ and specifically around making sure that no child goes hungry in Santa Cruz County,” he adds. “It will also be a national headquarters for Grind Out Hunger, taking this Grind Out Hunger mission nationwide.”
Keith says it could also be used as a footprint for other food banks to come in and use Grind Out Hunger on multiple levels. “If they want to go full force and have their own Grind Out Hunger headquarters in their area, we can franchise that opportunity,” he notes. “Or, if they want, they can just use different pieces of our curriculum, which falls under Grind Out Hunger University.”
The latter will include a curriculum around nutrition, advocacy, fundraising, entrepreneurship and, Keith says, “basically just giving kids an opportunity to excel, be part of the solution and start feeding people.”
Keith, who grew up in a low-income household in Santa Cruz County, says he looks at hunger as at the root of many problems—from health care issues to the economic downturn.
“I believe the way we’ve structured food as a commodity has created classism,” he says. “If we could eradicate the opportunity for people to go hungry and malnourished, we might begin to tackle some of these other issues in our society.”
It’s a noble idea, and, clearly, just one of many circulating around SHFB at the moment. Now that the Food Bank has reached a significant milestone—one that will take them into yet another decade—there’s another bright spot on its horizon: Social Media.
Grind Out Hunger’s development team is feverishly focusing on inventive ways to engage the community with the Food Bank through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
“We’re looking at how we let the public know about our programs and all the amazing stories we have,” Keith says. “It seems like the community understands that there is an issue, so we just need them to stay aware of it.”
And stay involved.
“The community needs to believe wholeheartedly that no family, no person, should go hungry,” Keith says. “People need to realize what a deficit it creates not to support the safety-net services that provide people the bare essentials to get back on their feet.
“I think the key phrase that I’m using when I’m out speaking to different audiences is that these people are not going to go away, these people are community members that need to be reintegrated,” he goes on.
“They can be reintegrated by making sure they have access to healthy, nutritious food because then they’ll have the mental capacity to make the hard decisions to get themselves back on their feet.”
The challenge, he notes, is convincing the community to realize it’s not just a struggle to make ends meet, it’s actually a struggle to get back on one’s feet and get back to contributing to society in a positive fashion. “I think the nucleus of that is making sure people have access to healthy, nutritious food,” he says.
Looking Ahead /Lessons Learned
Asked what he believes is one of the Food Bank’s most significant challenges in the future, Elliott-McCrae says it has to do with sustainability, and continuing the momentum it has had. He also reveals that SCFB has gone through a re-visioning process of what it would like to accomplish in the next 10 years, which is to eradicate hunger and malnutrition in Santa Cruz County.
‘Another part of the challenge is figuring out who to partner with to tackle the root causes,” he says, “and how to get people excited about this going into the future.”
Because of his vast experience combating hunger, it seems fitting to ask Elliott-McCrae what is the most unique thing he has discovered and/or learned about people—about giving, about helping out in Santa Cruz—when it comes to the issue of hunger?
“I recently read an article by Frances Moore Lappé [Yes! magazine, April 20, 2012] called “Free Your (Eco) Mind,” and I was so struck by what it said,” he shares. “She talked about how our species of humans have this vast experience of evolving closely in communities, knowing our lives depend on one another, and so often people now forget that. More than 80 percent of our happiness comes from relationships, and giving.”
Basically, people get a lot more pleasure from giving than receiving.
“We always talk about money, everything’s always money, and we have to survive and stuff like that, but what really drives people is the desire to be able to give, and help one another,” he goes on. “The thing I’m proudest of about Second Harvest, after being the director here since the ’80s, is seeing how much the community has rallied around the opportunity to work together to make sure kids, seniors, families, have the food they need. It’s a tangible—you can almost eat it—sense of community. Just the breadth and depth of this giving nature.”
Elliott-McCrea is quick to point out how the community is driven by the incentive to give and how 40,000 people jumped in and helped with the holiday food drive. Also significant was Twin Lakes Church—its holiday food drive set out to raise $100 for every man, woman and child in its congregation. Over 10 weeks of repeated individual donations of $1, a million pounds of food was raised.
“I think of that, and the sacrifice that took—people sold their books, coin collections, and so on—and discovered the extraordinary joy that comes from giving,” he says. “If everybody does a little bit we can be much stronger and healthier as a community.
“People talk about things like war, competition, and our human experience around that has been short. Fundamentally, we are tribal people. We are used to being in small groups—close together. That’s what human nature is really about. It’s about cooperating, it’s about giving and working together.” n
“Second Harvest Food Bank Commemorates 40 Years” takes place from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Friday July 20. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased by July 13 at thefoodbank.org. Call 722-7110 x 226 for more information.
External Factors : Civil rights movement is in full swing. Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs seek to end poverty and racial injustice. Community Action Programs (CAP) founded in1964 Economic Opportunity Act to fight poverty by empowering the poor as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty legislation. CBS airs its “Hunger in America” television series in 1967.
Internal Milestones: The Black Panthers organize Free Breakfast for School Children across the country, and Al DiLudivico is hired to manage the Santa Cruz branch of the program.
External Factors: Senate Committee on Nutrition (SCON) is formed with McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program as co-chair. SCON expands Food Stamps and WIC programs. SCON creates a public school breakfast program.
Internal Milestones: Al DiLudivico recruits Michael Alexander to start the first food bank in California in 1972. A frozen cauliflower donation of 50 tons catalyzes the CA food bank system in 1973. Michael Alexander co-founds the Second Harvest national network of food banks in 1979.
External Factors: Reagan cuts welfare and school nutrition programs. The USDA hosts a massive cheese and butter giveaway. The 1989 earthquake epicenter is only five miles from the Food Bank’s warehouse.
Internal Milestones: After Michael Alexander moves back to Florida in 1983 the Food Bank goes through four program directors in four years and experiences large funding deficits from 1983-1988. Willy Elliott-McCrea is promoted to Food Bank director in 1988 and launches the Holiday Food Drive and hopes to “Involve the community.” The 1989 earthquake relief effort receives 2 million pounds of food and $500,000 in two weeks. Food Bank changes its name to Second Harvest Food Bank.
External Factors: Clinton implements welfare reform. The obesity crisis gains traction. Jess Brown, Tim Driscoll and Willy Elliott-McCrea co-found the nonprofit AG Against Hunger, which collects surplus produce from Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Cruz County growers. This fresh produce is then distributed to food banks throughout the West Coast.
Internal Milestones : Second Harvest Food Bank spins off from the nonprofit Food and Nutrition Services (FNS Inc.) in order to operate directly under its own board of trustees in 1993.
Willy Elliott-McCrea is the founding president of the California Association of Food Banks from 1995-1998. CAFB promotes collaboration between food banks in response to emerging social, economic and legislative challenges impacting hungry people in the state. SHFB launches a study on local hunger.
External Factors : A reported one in eight kids go hungry in the U.S. The Farm Bill of 2007 increases food for food banks nationally.
Internal Milestones: SHFB’s first business plan is created by the board of directors. Second Harvest receives a USDA Foodstamp outreach research grant. SHFB purchases its Watsonville facility in 2004 and exceeds 5 million pounds of food. SHFB receives a Nutrition Network grant from 2003-2008. SHFB receives a Webster Food for Children expansion grant in 2006.
SHFB exceeds $1 million in community donations from 2005-2006.
External Factors: Economic Crash.
Internal Milestones : Second Harvest builds its enormous produce cooler and freezer. More than half of Second Harvest’s food is fruits and veggies. Second Harvest exceeds 50,000 volunteer hours.
External Factors: Economic meltdown. SHFB receives County Development Block Grant funding for the Passion for Produce program.
Internal Milestones: SHFB installs its Nutrition Education Center.
External Factors: First Lady Michelle Obama establishes the “Let’s Move” campaign to fight obesity.
Internal Milestones:SHFB launches Passion for Produce and Nutrition Ambassadors programs. Salud Para La Gente donates more than 250 holiday chickens to patients. Ana Rasmussen launches the nonprofit Mesa Verde community gardens in Watsonville.
External Factors: USDA decreases its contribution to the SHFB. Recession continues and joblessness increases. Tomato paste is declared a vegetable. Economic downturn creates 40 percent increase in overall demand for food. Twin Lakes Church’s record holiday food drive brings major publicity and awareness about hunger and health. Congress declares cheese pizza a vegetable for school lunches.
Internal Milestones : SHFB completes its facility expansion. Grind Out Hunger receives County School Board Resolution No. 11-14 recognizing the efforts of youth and their contribution to Grind Out Hunger. Twin Lakes Church raises 1.2 million pounds of food for SHFB in their holiday food drive. SHFB exceeds 7.5 million pounds of food raised in 2011.
Photos: Courtesy Second Harvest Food Bank