By Hannah Esqueda
Photo by Hannah Esqueda
MERCED, Calif. — Local food pantries are seeing increased demand this holiday season, despite a spike in year-end charitable giving.
“Since we’re an agricultural county, the need really does grow dramatically over the holidays,” said Bill Gibbs, executive director of the Merced County Food Bank. “A lot of families rely on that [field] work for their entire income so when the work stops for the season, the need grows.”
Located behind the Walmart in North Merced, the 30,000-square-foot food warehouse serves more than 100 nonprofit agencies throughout the county. These “customers” oversee a variety of smaller food pantries, brown-bag programs and emergency food centers which distribute groceries directly to those in need.
Since 2014, the Merced County Food Bank has also served as an official distribution site for the state’s drought-relief food box program, handing out an average of 12,000 boxes every month to those in need.
Each box is meant to feed a family of five for about three days, said Matt Mooney, warehouse manager at the food bank. The packages contain non-perishable food items and are designed to require little to no cooking equipment.
“Those foods are meant to be consumed right away and easy to prepare,” he said.
Mooney said the food bank has seen a recent spike in demand from local families, handing out 14,635 boxes in November alone.
“We’ll probably see near that, if not more, this December,” he said.
While the general public is encouraged to stop by and pick up the drought-relief boxes as needed, the majority of the food bank’s warehouse space is dedicated to supplying the smaller pantries overseen by dozens of local churches, community groups and nonprofit partners. The agencies are able to “shop” the warehouse’s food supplies for pennies on the dollar, with the revenue going towards the food bank’s operational costs.
“We’re not a public institution. Even though we have the word ‘county’ in our name, we are a private nonprofit,” Gibbs said. “We rely on a lot of support from the community and grant money.”
Earlier this year the group received a Wells Fargo grant allowing them to join the California Association of Food Banks. The statewide membership has opened the door to a bevy of benefits including lower bulk food prices.
This savings is now passed on to its smaller food pantry customers, meaning those operations can now afford more fresh fruits and produce to hand out for free to locals in needs, Gibbs said.
The nonprofit also supports 26 of the area’s U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food distribution sites, including one operated by the University of California, Merced. While actually located on Merced Community College’s campus in North Merced, the site is meant to be a resource for off-campus UC students vulnerable to food insecurity.
“As a USDA site we are open to anyone who qualifies for the program. Initially we only publicized on-campus so we could attract just students,” said Vernette Doty, associate director of Student Life and Civic Leadership at UC Merced. “That first year we served 100 percent students…now it’s grown to be about 50 percent community and 50 percent students.”
That jump is demonstrative of the growing need for food resources throughout the Valley and Doty said a recent survey found one in four UC Merced students to be food insecure.
“Only one other UC campus had a similar rate to us and the other eight campuses saw one in five,” she said. “For us to be one in four, that’s 25 percent of all our students and even then we know that it’s likely to be higher. Many of them may be used to getting by on less [food] so they may be underreporting.”
Doty currently sits on a subcommittee dedicated to addressing issues of food insecurity throughout the UC system. Currently, the USDA site is only open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m on the third Friday of every month. Food supplies are also limited to whatever the government program has provided the Merced County Food Bank for distribution.
While the food pantry has been a good start, Doty said she understands that the facility’s limited hours can make it difficult for some students to access.
“Not everyone can make it in that window but already we are open longer than other USDA sites, they’re usually just open for two hours at a time,” she said.
Going forward, the university hopes to introduce several more food resources including grocery giveaways on campus and a shopping shuttle. Doty said the planned shuttle program will launch sometime next semester and run a route from campus to town, stopping at a few grocery stores along the way.
Overall, however, the need in Merced County for food resources appears to be growing rather than diminishing and advocates like Gibbs say it’s important that the community remain aware of the issue even after the holiday drives have ended.
“We get great support through businesses and other private donors in the community but this is something we really see a need for year-round,” he said. “The need we’re seeing in the community right now is three times the capacity of our space.”