The July 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Oakland Youth Organize

Hate Crimes Against the Homeless

Food Bank Helps Ease Hunger

Food Bank Keeps Growing

San Diego's Economic Cleansing

Psychiatric Abuse and Repression

Transit Activists Win Victory

Technology for the Poor

Violent Arrest at City Hall

The Dream of People's Park

New Richmond Shelter to Open

Street Spirit Vendor Tony McNair

Bush's Tax Cuts for the Rich

Corporate Benedict Arnolds

Rain Lane's Photographs

"Say Something" A Short Story

Poor Leonard's Almanack

Poetry of the Streets


June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005






Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Helping Ease the Crisis of Hunger in Alameda County

by Carol Harvey

Suzan Bateson is the director of the Alameda County Food Bank. Lydia Gans photo

It seemed "a horrible thing for our culture that we would allow this to happen," Bateson said. "These people were the ages of my peer's parents. I know how hard they worked throughout their lives. No one wants to ever think of their grandmother standing in a food line."

Your stomach rumbles. You don't have enough money to feed your family. You are not alone. While the nation spends billions on war, hunger and poverty increase in America, and lower-income workers earn less.

America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest hunger relief organization, serves 23.3 million different people annually and seven million people weekly. About 45 percent of those served are forced to choose between food and utilities; 36 percent chose between food and rent/mortgage; and 30 percent choose between food and medical care. Children under 18 make up 39 percent of recipients, and 11 percent are elderly.

Research shows that 71 percent of clients are in the "food insecure" category, and 37 percent are outright "hungry." About 90 percent of food recipients are housed, and 10 percent are homeless.

The Alameda County Community Food Bank, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, has provided emergency food to low-income residents since 1985. The Food Bank, a local member of America's Second Harvest, did a study that documented 120,000 hungry clients a month.

"Most people who get assistance are the working poor," said Food Bank Executive Director Suzan Bateson. She cited a 2004 California Budget Project report. "It costs $70,000 for a family of four to meet basic needs in the Bay Area," she said. "How many really earn $70,000 a year? It's no surprise that many working people end up standing in food lines because they can't feed their families."

Alameda County residents needing food can call the Alameda County Community Food Bank's hotline at 1-800-870-3663 (FOOD). If you e-mail and provide your name, address, and zip code, a hotline operator will call the next day.

Bateson said that the number of hungry children served by the Food Bank would fill the Oakland Athletics' Coliseum. "I love baseball," she said. "When I go to an A's game, I sit in my seat and think, 'If this stadium was filled to capacity, that would be about as many kids as we serve in a month.' It's about 50,000!" She is proud that "12 exciting baseball games would be the number of kids we'd help in a year."

This former fashion industry professional's focus on feeding children came from a moment of truth. As a newly single working parent with three daughters, ages 3, 5, and 8, she found that daycare was very expensive.

"I had a former spouse who paid his child support and helped contribute," Bateson said, "but I recognized very quickly there was little flexibility in my budget with a mortgage to pay and medical bills. The one part of my budget that I could really fiddle around with was my food budget. I quickly understood what it would be like for kids whose parents didn't have resources. If I didn't have the skills to figure out what my career path was going to be, it could have been difficult."

Her concern for children arises from a feeling that if the community doesn't care about its young and elderly, it "really isn't much of a community. The indicator of a good society is one where we take care of one another."

In 1990, when she began working for the Contra Costa County Food Bank as volunteer manager and community events coordinator, she first noticed the number of senior citizens handing out food to their peers. It seemed "a horrible thing for our culture that we would allow this to happen," Bateson said. "These people were the ages of my peer's parents. I know how hard they worked throughout their lives. No one wants to ever think of their grandmother standing in a food line."

The numbers of "house-rich, cash-poor" seniors is rising. Many are desperately trying to stay in their homes against the high cost of living and soaring property values, and many others are standing in line for food because a spouse's critical illness ate up their savings. "We need to start thinking as a society of what we can do to start turning things around," Bateson said.

After five years at the Contra Costa Food Bank, Bateson took a position directing The Volunteer Center for Contra Costa County, engaging young people in volunteer activities, "a rewarding effort because I care so much about contributing in the community."

In April 2001, she became the executive director of the Alameda County Community Food Bank. After four years, she said, "I feel I'm just learning the ropes."

"I came in to our luxurious place," she laughed. The former commissary on the Oakland Army Base was a huge induction and processing center for people being shipped off to World War II or Viet Nam. "We had over 100,000 square feet, very big for a Bay Area Food Bank because property is very expensive here. It had docks and parking for as many volunteers as could show up."

For twenty years, not having a long-term home for the Food Bank was a constant pressure. Each of the four moves temporarily shut down operations.

The board of directors and staff thought the Oakland Army Base was going to be a permanent home. But, when the base was decommissioned, the land was reconveyed to the Port of Oakland and the City of Oakland who, according to Bateson, provided an accommodation to the Food Bank to buy them out of their leaseholds on their properties.

"We worked with the Port and the City to establish the value of our old 100,000-foot warehouse for thirty years," Bateson said. On December 15, 2004, "The Food Bank purchased the new facility we've moved into, and the bank received payment of $4.5 million for our leasehold. That enabled the Food Bank to make a down payment on the new facility. We will be able to stay here. Our interests don't need to be diverted to where we are going to end up next time."

On June 3, the Alameda County Community Food Bank relocated to the people-friendly, modern, 118,000-square-foot facility at 7900 Edgewater Drive in Oakland. A volunteer legion of UPS workers in shorts helped the staff load UPS trucks and then delivered food to the new warehouse. The Food Bank then opened for business with its member agencies on Monday, June 13, 2005.

The "wonderful" new facility has a new freezer and cooler, commodious office space, and training rooms where they will install a demonstration kitchen to teach food safety and handling, and nutrition.

Alameda County residents and Food Bank constituents can more easily access the Food Bank's new home near the Oakland Coliseum and Hegenberger Road than the Army Base location, which was close to the Bay Bridge. "That was great for folks in Berkeley or West Oakland," she noted, "but a long stretch for organizations or people traveling from Livermore, Pleasanton, or Southern Alameda County."

Users can take the I-880 freeway to the Coliseum exit, or BART to the Coliseum station, then the AC Transit line #98, which stops on Edgewater Drive near the Food Bank.

The Alameda County Community Food Bank is "the food source" in a huge network of 280 agencies. The agencies collectively own the Food Bank, make decisions about it, choose board members or change bylaws. Agencies apply for membership, and once approved, can shop once a week at the Food Bank warehouse "store" from constantly replenished stock prepared for distribution by volunteers.

Agencies gather and distribute food to working poor families, seniors, abuse survivors, children, homeless people and people living with life-threatening illnesses.

Free food is provided to children through YMCA programs for low-income youth, school meals, after-school or summer lunch programs, and the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Program. Food is also given to seniors through Meals on Wheels or residential programs, through St. Vincent De Paul's dining room, meal programs like Food Not Bombs, church food pantries, or via the food stamp program.

Food is donated to the Food Bank by growers and farmers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, producers, U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities and purchased food programs, and from individual donations collected through holiday or letter-carrier food drives. The inventory is augmented by bulk purchases of perishable staples, like meat or dairy products, and other necessary stock.

Based on income level and household size, you can participate in the Partners In Need (PIN) program and receive a 15-pound grocery bag in exchange for a three-hour volunteer shift, with a maximum of three bags per week, one bag per household. (Call the Hotline manager at (510) 635-3363, ext. 308.)

The Food Bank is a member agency of the overarching national organization, America's Second Harvest, a consortium of donor companies including Kellogg's, Nabisco and General Mills. Second Harvest offers a central contact point to route food across the country.
Said Bateson, "The simplicity of having just one group made it easier for these businesses to give. It was one organization that could route the donations."

"Tax write-offs are actually quite minimal," she explained. "People don't know that companies used to pay people to watch while food was destroyed to not have it be sold in second markets or found to be not of good quality." Companies were trying to avoid high diversion costs of tainted product going into landfills.

"One impetus for America's Second Harvest was trying to prevent food waste," Bateson said. Spoilage, off-taste, and outdated food are serious issues. "It took years to develop the right kind of relationships with food manufacturers to gain trust that food banks would hand out this food; it would not be sold; it would be given to hungry people."

Through food drives or manufacturers, the food bank sometimes receives accidentally opened products, like cereals or crackers with a broken bag inside. Hog farmers pick up the contents from food bank bins. Said Bateson, "Pigs honestly will eat just about anything."

Bateson strongly supports the food stamp program. "It's an entitlement, not welfare," she said. "It's a wonderful program, so underutilized in our community that it just breaks my heart."

A food bank study revealed that, "while 80 percent of the people we interviewed would have been eligible for food stamps, only 21 percent participated." Bateson said the numbers are so low because of fingerprinting, difficulty applying, and quarterly reporting.

"I think it's leaving money on the table, and it's a crying shame," she said, adding that, "we have managed to knock down some of the barriers." Assembly Bill 696 was offered by Judy Chu, Los Angeles Assemblywoman, to eliminate fingerprinting and institute reporting every six months.

About complaints of food stamp fraud, Bateson said, "I challenge anyone to fill out an application, see how much time it takes, how much information you had to give, how many meetings you had to go to, how much time you spent either getting your documentation together or waiting in the SSA office proving that you deserve it. Who has this kind of time unless you really need the assistance?

"According to the California Food Policy Advocates website, the fraud rate is very low -- 2 to 3 percent, if that. When these include the people who really need it, elderly people balancing medical expenses against keeping their homes, or families with children, I think they'd be hard pressed to find people who are bilking the system."

Bateson applauds the efforts of "those good people who frequently contribute to the Food Bank." She said she wants to tell people who need Food Bank services, "We are thrilled to be in a new facility. We are here to serve you, and to help people, as long as we are needed."

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