Feeding the hungry, one neighborhood at a time

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How does a food bank measure success? To answer this question, we look to our mission: Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services (SFBFS) is dedicated to assisting those in need by alleviating their immediate pain and problems and moving them toward self-sufficiency and financial independence.

Let’s focus on the first half of the mission, “assisting those in need by alleviating their immediate pain and problems.” On the Food Bank Services side of the organization, this means ensuring that the food insecure in Sacramento County have food resources when they have other bills to pay and have to cut the food budget, when CalFresh or SSI benefits run out or when healthy options are left off the shopping list for more affordable and calorie-dense foods. Concretely, in Sacramento County, that means ensuring approximately 240,000 people who are food insecure can access a 5-day supply of food once a month.

That’s no small order. After stepping into the role of county food bank, SFBFS quickly realized that the network of 224 hunger-relief organizations known as Partner Agencies could not reach everyone in need. More specifically, SFBFS’ Partner Agencies serves about 130,000 individuals every month. Do the math, and that’s about 110,000 people we weren’t serving. Another metric to consider is how much food people receive at a distribution on average. The recommended amount of food an individual should eat is 18 pounds of food for five days, and by our calculations, individuals are receiving about 13 pounds of food, four of those being produce. What does all that mean? To fulfill our mission and to be successful as a food bank we need to feed more people, distribute more food and provide healthier options.

Next we needed to figure out the how. With the support of an advisory committee, we devised a new way to think about food banking. The model is called Neighborhood Food Access Networks (NFAN). The Food Access Network of Sacramento County is split into 13 Neighborhood Food Access Networks. This is similar to the way the United States is split into 50 states to govern on a more local level. This way we could address food insecurity based on community specific needs.

We meet monthly with Partner Agencies in each NFAN. We discuss how we can come together as a community of hunger-relief organizations to reduce the feeding gap, increase the amount of food we distribute and increase the proportion of healthy fruits and vegetables. We also assess what investments we need to put into infrastructure and equipment in order to fulfill our goals. We are dealing with non-trivial amounts of food regulated by stringent food safety requirements put in place to address public health and safety concerns. Our hunger-relief network is a complex system that, in order to be effective, must be professionalized and massively upgraded. We need commercial refrigeration, upgraded technology, training across the board from food safety, marketing, volunteer coordination, trucks and in some cases, paid staff.

All of this is simply to meet the need and make sure people do not have to forgo eating and eating healthfully because of an economic barrier. To be clear, we are not yet talking about ending hunger­; we are talking about alleviating it. Not only do we need to face that as a community, but we need to face the reality of the challenges that face us as a network of hunger-relief organizations working in the same community toward a collective goal. The NFANs that meet are motivated with a healthy dose of reality daunting them. We look at the food insecurity data specific to their community to determine where and who to direct outreach and services to. We look at distribution schedules to ensure that someone experiencing food insecurity can access food whenever they may need it. The Partner Agencies, the majority of whom are volunteer-run, are starting to ask themselves and each other tough questions and exploring the tough answers that will slowly begin to fundamentally change our hunger-relief landscape in Sacramento County.

Submitted by: Sonia Ran
SFBFS Emergency Food System Project Coordinator