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Food Bank Distribution at Columbian Gardens Fills Bellies and Hearts

12 June 2009 No Comment

It’s 9 a.m. in the morning, and more than 200 people have gathered at Columbian Gardens recreation center to wait for their weekly produce from the Alameda County Food Bank.

To keep chaos at bay, volunteer Bill Walker hands out yellow plastic cards with numbers from 1 to 200.  A second set of numbered cards is soon cracked open as people continued to arrive.cg1

The dip in the economy may have caused a decrease in patronage for other businesses, but the Alameda Food Bank has seen a 37 percent increase in clients compared to this time last year according to spokesperson Brian Higgins.

“We serve 40,000 people a week and 14,000 of them are children,” said Higgins.

A truck from the food bank warehouse backs up the drive way and 20 volunteers quickly unload the seven tons of the day’s produce offerings:  yams, carrots, white onions, and packaged bags of shredded ice berg lettuce, hearts of romaine and cole slaw mix.

“On Fridays there were at least eighty to one hundred people, now we run 175 to 200,” said Bill Walker, a retiree who has volunteered at Columbian Gardens for five years.

cg4Fifty-pound bags of vegetables are placed behind the tables next to palettes of boxes stacked six feet tall.  The contents are divvied up into smaller shopping bags that the recipients will pick up as they walk by each station.

A few clients pick through clothing on a give away table while the volunteers continue their work.

Columbian Gardens is one of 275 distribution centers in Alameda County, but one of only ten that has food available five days a week.

Emergency food drop in hours are from noon to 1:30 p.m. every weekday. Volunteers set aside some produce for the emergency food boxes they will construct after the morning distribution is done. The boxes often contain a mix of produce and canned and dry goods.

The protocol requires clients to call the food bank head quarters to make an appointment before they go to Columbian Gardens to pick up emergency food, but if they show up unannounced it’s okay.

“No one is turned away,” said Walker.

cg0Lurleen Jackson, also known as Mom by the volunteers, has run the distribution at Columbian Gardens since 1974.

When asked why she started to work with the poor, she said, simply,

“Because they need it. That would be the only answer.”

Jackson is a devoted Christian and serves as an usher at Community Reform church where she can be found walking the aisles every Sunday morning.

“People are so appreciative,” she gushes.  “They tell me all about their recipes.”

Her volunteers return this love in spades.  Her operation runs so smoothly she has to do little more than wander around and watch as they take care of everything.

The volunteers have bagged enough produce so it’s time to start the processional.  Walker explains how the line will work and another volunteer translates his words into Spanish for the primarily Latino crowd.

Alicia Williams, a geriatric nurse, is all smiles handing off bags bursting full of white onions.

“I just got off work and came to pick up my mother-in-law to eat and go shopping.  I always stop and lend a hand.  The reward is greater than pay.  Knowing someone will not go hungry is a plus,” said Alicia.cg5

Iome has volunteered at Columbian Gardens for 10 years.  She feels volunteering can be as rewarding for retirees like herself as it is for the recipients.

“It gives me something to do.  I love helping people, instead of being at home lonely and bored.   It keeps you young,” said Iome.

Odelia Sanchez, from Guatemala, pushes a cart with today’s bounty.  This is her third visit to pick up provisions for her husband and five children.  She heard about the distribution through friends.

“The economy is bad and I’m out of a job.  It helps a lot.  If you go to the store it’s expensive.  Here it is a gift,” she said.

Evelyn Rivas from El Salvador has visited the food bank for six months.  She already has plans for some of the produce.

“I’ll use it to make repollo,” she said referring to a slaw of cabbage, carrots, onions and vinegar that is eaten with pupusas, a Salvadorian style corn cake.

cg2Through the translator Walker tells everyone they are welcome to have some cilantro, three additional bags of the packaged produce and an additional bag of anything else that is left on the tables.

Crinkly onion skins scatter across the parking lot and take flight in the breeze while the line goes through in the opposite direction.

The crew at Columbian Gardens supplements their offerings by visiting the food bank every Wednesday for additional produce and canned goods and dry goods.  Every fourth Tuesday is USDA day where they get canned food, milk, juice and meat.  They also keep an eye out for bread on Wednesdays, which is one of the most requested items.

“People who call the food bank for emergency food tell them they want to come to Columbian Gardens.  We never run out of food,” said Walker, taking pride in their work.  “We treat them like people.  We’ve got the service, so we provide it to them.

According to Walker, at this time last year they averaged five emergency food pickups a day. Now they average 35 a day.  Last month the average peaked at 45 emergency food pick up a day.

The county court sends Jackson 6-10 volunteers a month who work to pay off their tickets.

“What the court does for me is such a big help,” said Jackson.

Volunteer Andrew Roddy chimes in, “They fall in love with Mom.  Then they come back and keep volunteering.”cg3

Roddy has personal experience with this phenomenon.  One year and five months ago he was sent to Columbian Gardens to work off a ticket, and hasn’t stopped coming since. He even joined Jackson’s church.

While Roddy and a skeleton crew of three other volunteers assemble emergency boxes inside the building, Humberto Dueñas from San Leandro loads his truck.  In addition to his family of four he will share today’s catch with two of his brothers families, his sister’s family and their mother.

Dueñas is a construction worker that has been laid off for seven months, but has found alternate work at a Toyota factory in Hayward.

He is pleased with today’s produce, “It’s a big help.  In Mexican food we use these things all the time.”

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