Local orgs push ways to help after the holiday-giving rush
The war against hunger is at its peak in the first three months of the year, says Danny Keith, chief development and technology officer at Second Harvest Food Bank Of Santa Cruz (SHFB). He says donations to SHFB “atrophy” between January and March, as the press coverage received during its holiday food drives dies down.
“After the holiday period everybody goes through this retraction,” says Keith. “I don't think it's intended. It is more of a reflection of how the economy has been built for the last hundred years. January, February, [and] March is hard for everyone.” But as giving slows down and the weather gets warmer, hunger doesn't retreat.
The food bank exceeded its 2011 holiday goal by 200,000 pounds’ worth of food in cash and canned goods. The organization is on course to distribute eight million pounds throughout the county for the second year in a row. The large amount collected over the holidays largely supplies their operations throughout the spring.
This is part of SHFB's strategy to avoid wearing out its donor base by breaking the year into “digestible chunks.”
“The next big upswing [in need] we are going to see is from the kids when they get out of school in May and June,” Keith says, “because there is no summer lunch program for these kids.”
To take on this issue, SHFB’s Food For Kids program has begun gathering food and donations to support summer distribution at more than 100 local spots.
Despite donations remaining stable, Second Harvest is still catching up with a 38 percent uptick in the number of people needing emergency food assistance since 2008. They are now serving 55,000 Santa Cruz County residents with the help of 120 other local partner agencies.
The amount of food given to each person has dipped from 13.4 pounds per person in 2007 to 9.9 pounds today, according to the food bank's statistics. They are also seeing people come to them over longer periods of time.
“The average time people seek emergency food assistance used to be six to eight months,” says Keith. “That is dragging on a bit longer nowadays. We also help get people on long-term assistance, like CalFresh.” Four million people in California receive CalFresh benefits (formerly referred to as “food stamps”).
Keith hopes that if the economy improves, and donations continue from the 12,000 groups and individuals who actively support SHFB, that these issues will be resolved in the “next year or two.”
Other community organizations charged with helping locals in need say they also see a lag in support when the press and public focus is elsewhere.
While Second Harvest is distributing food, the Homeless Garden Project (HGP) is literally taking on hunger at the ground level. More than 1,200 volunteers worked on the farm between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve in 2011, making for the largest turnout at the farm near Natural Bridges. HGP Volunteer Coordinator Kelly Mercer says people are welcome to come get their hands dirty in the spring, as well, because planting crops and growing is as crucial as harvesting in the fall.
People can buy shares in the farm from May to October, which helps fund the HGP year round. In return, shareholders receive boxes of produce and bouquets of flowers every month.
“You can have it picked for you or buy a 'you pick’ share,” Mercer says. “That's one of my favorite parts of the program. Families coming out, and kids realizing that strawberries come from the ground and not the aisle at the grocery store.”
Donating gloves and other farming supplies is a huge help to the farm, because it is hard for them to guess how many peope will show up, to work. Open volunteer hours are every Thursday and Friday, when weather permits.
“We want to break down the price barrier that now makes organic produce only available to wealthy people,” Mercer says. “Donations [to the garden] help fund scholarships to get the food to the Santa Cruz Aids Project, Beach Flats Community Center, the Women's Crisis Support Center and many [more groups].”
All of these groups and more will gather on April 17 for the Third Annual Project Homeless Connect. It's the largest event of the year aimed at jump-starting the homeless population back into the work force. United Way Of Santa Cruz County Community Organizer Kymberly Lacrosse is a leader on the event's steering committee, whose planning efforts bring dozens of services, including the Department of Motor Vehicles, massage therapists and healthcare workers, to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.
PHC is free, and offers attendees the resources to accomplish in one day what could take several days, or longer, on their own. Locating all the offices and necessary paperwork can be impossible for people with no address, says Lacrosse. About 500 volunteers team up each year to make the event run smoothly. As of this writing, fewer than 100 were signed up.
“A lot of people sign up right before the event,” says Lacrosse. “We usually end up with more volunteers than we need. We aren't worried.” Duties include setting up booths, cooking and acting as advocates to lead attendees through the day.
She says that one of the most interesting aspects of planning the event is organizing the volunteers, as there is a tendency to have an overflow of people vying for the same, more visible positions, such as serving lunch. However she adds that the event has many critical behind-the-scenes roles that aren’t as coveted, such as setting up booths and tables as well as sweeping and mopping afterward. “People can come in and we set them up in subcommittees where they can offer what they are best at,” she says.
The result is more than $150,000 in services offered for about one-tenth that amount. The DMV discounts driver's licenses to $7, and that cost is covered by donors. Attendees also receive essentials such as new socks, sunscreen and a meal.
“There is one man who came and the event worked so well for him that he volunteers every year,” Lacrosse says.
It takes the PHC steering committee the whole previous year to organize the one-day event.
Keith says these are just a few ways to get involved in community service during these dire months: Collecting refurbished cell phones for the Walnut Avenue Women's Center and volunteering at the Beach Flats Community Center are just two other meaningful ways to contribute.
“If everyone picked a community event that struck a chord for them, it's going to enliven that person's soul,” he says. “It's why people will stop what they're doing when there's an earthquake in Haiti and jump on a plane to go help, because there is an addictive piece to helping other people.”
People interested in getting involved in Project Homeless Connect can contact Kymberly Lacrosse at 465-2212. Homeless Garden Project can be contacted at 423-1021. Anyone needing food assistance can call the SHFB hotline at 662-0991.
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