Orange County Food Bank Community Action Partnership of Orange County
To put into perspective just how much the pandemic impacted hunger in Orange County, The OC Food Bank in Garden Grove had its record year in 2019 since it was founded more than forty years ago. That year, they distributed 23 million pounds of food. In 2020, that number tripled to 63 million pounds, and in 2021 they distributed 43 million pounds of food. There are many reasons for that spike in distribution and need said Mark Lowry, Director of the Orange County Food Bank. Just a few reasons: increase in demand and unemployment skyrocketed.
It was a tricky situation during the pandemic, traditional sources of donated food evaporated, and there were strains in the supply chain. “We get food donated from the food industry when there is surplus, but during the pandemic, there were food shortages. "Thankfully, the federal government recognized an increasing need across the country and the need to respond to it, so they set up a short-lived program of emergency relief during the crisis called the Farmers to Families,” Lowry said.
The government spent about $4 billion across the country buying food from vendors who also deliver food to us. "Everybody rallied and recognized the increasing need, so we received millions of dollars through private philanthropy, the County of Orange, and the State of California to purchase food that we needed and that we wouldn’t normally have money to purchase,” Lowry said.
Today, there’s still an unprecedented need for food and hunger is still thriving.
“The recent months feel like a one-two punch,” Lowry said. “Just as we are starting to see Covid-related needs diminish, all of a sudden inflation rose to about a 40-plus year high, interest rates are rising, and now with the fear of a recession looming, the cost of food is rising, and its impacting families as well.”
Lowry worries that since healthy foods tend to cost more, and unhealthy foods normally cost less, more people will cut back on healthy foods. “As groceries continue to increase in price, economically it pushes low-income families to make choices regarding what foods they purchase and consume, to less healthy choices and then there are all of the health consequences that go along with it,” Lowry said.
If you’ve ever wondered what a food bank’s role is, its primary job is to supply food for nonprofits in the community, but increasingly food banks have evolved to also serve individuals directly and indirectly.
It may be surprising to know that many people who qualify for government assistance locally, are not taking advantage of it. “Whereas we never have enough food to meet the need of the community, 41% of all the people who qualify for CalFresh are not on the program. So, we are missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars of federal resources to feed families each year because California has one of the lowest participation rates in the country, and Orange County specifically has one of the lower participation rates in the state in terms of CalFresh enrollment,” Lowry said. “The issue is that we have a very diverse population, and language and culture barriers.
There are myths and fears about accessing government programs, and myths about who qualifies. Some people believe that if you take public assistance you could be at risk of being evicted from the states, or your children are going to be required to serve in the military. “The other myth is that you’re going to have to pay it all back,” Lowry said.
The OC Food Bank has also responded to the need of lower-income families by becoming America’s largest diaper bank. Hunger is a symptom of poverty. The same people who need food most likely have issues with healthcare and utilities, transportation and housing, and all of the living costs that we all have to absorb. For low-income families, diapers are a large expense.
“We were able to start the fifth diaper bank in the state of California in two years, and last year we became America’s largest diaper bank. We distributed 23 million infant diapers in only our second year of operation,” Lowry said.
The OC Food Bank is a massive site in Garden Grove -- 60,000 square feet, with additional storage offsite, and a 3,300 sq. ft freezer and fridge that’s 18 ft. high. “But It’s really never enough space,” Lowry said.
Inside they have a shopping area for their nonprofit partners – about 250 in all. Throughout the course of the week, nonprofit members can come into the food bank to “shop” for what they need,” Lowry said. “What’s especially unique about Bracken’s Kitchen is that it is one of the few nonprofits that can make good use of foods that other nonprofits or food pantries could not use. For example, Bracken’s can easily benefit from receiving 5-gallon or 10-gallon buckets of tomato sauce, which would be perfect for a stew or soup. They can take commercial-sized packaged items, combine them with other donated foods, and make thousands of nutritious meals out of them.”
Bracken’s Kitchen comes in to shop to see what the OC Food Bank has available, and they are also sort of on speed dial. “When we see items that come in that we know they can make unique use out of, we’ll call them up right away,” Lowry said.
They have a hodge-podge of stuff – it's really like a potluck. Lowry said they never know from day to day what they are going to get. But Bill and his team with their chef backgrounds are really creative about looking at a lot of items that seem disparate and unrelated and figuring out how to transform those into nutritious meals for families.
What’s unique about Bracken’s is that they will often donate food right back to the OC Food Bank. “We provide food for other charities and once it leaves we never see it again, but one of the things that are unique to Bracken’s is that sometimes our food will come back to us in much better form than when it left,” Lowry said. “They will make meals in their kitchen, package and freeze them, and then re-donate the meals back to us. It leaves us as just some simple ingredients and comes back as beautiful nutritious meals. It’s a great gift, not an expectation. It’s because of this special relationship that we share.”