Thanksgiving a week away, but the giving is slow

Alameda County Community Food Bank

The Alameda County Community Food Bank distributes about 3,000 three-foot high barrels (shown in the background) to various organizations and businesses for food drives. Photo courtesy of the Alameda County Community Food Bank.

Four three-foot high barrels resembling oversized soup cans sit at Spice Monkey Café and Restaurant in downtown Oakland. Each is emblazoned with photos of smiling children and has “Donate Food Here!” stamped across the black and red label. One barrel is filled with nonperishable canned goodies.  Another is half full. And two are completely empty.

Spice Monkey co-owner Kanitha Matoury is showing her holiday spirit by hosting a food drive for the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Her goal: to collect at least 1,000 pounds of canned goods. She’s giving residents a tasty incentive to help her reach that goal—a free Thanksgiving Day dinner in lieu of 10 cans of food.

But even with that tradeoff, she’s worried. This time last year, which was her first year holding the drive, Matoury had four full barrels. That means she’s two and a half barrels behind this year—signaling either the continued effects of the recession, or that people are simply “slow to react” this year in making their donations. “I think Thanksgiving is all about food, making sure everybody has enough to eat,” Matoury said. “It’s good to always remember that when you need help, someone will help you.”

Regardless of the way people donate, Matoury said, it’s important to support the community. “The Alameda [County Community] Food Bank is hurting,” she said. Her restaurant hosted a similar drive last year and donated nearly 800 pounds—the equivalent of four full barrels—of nonperishable items. “We figured it’s just one of those times to give back and give thanks. You give us cans, we give you dinner.”

Like Matoury, local businesses, organizations and families are coordinating food drives to help alleviate the food bank’s burden of providing canned goods to the 275 member agencies it serves annually—that includes community food pantries, soup kitchens and senior centers.

Alameda County Community Food Bank spokesperson Brian Higgins said a recent spike in demand is “certainly not a holiday indigenous problem” and that a high demand is prevalent year-round—and seems to be increasing. In 2009, Higgins told UC Berkeley’s The Daily Californian that the food bank doled out 3,005 bags of food that August through its Emergency Food Helpline (800-870-FOOD). At that time, it was the record-breaking month.

Now, Higgins said July of this year became the new record-breaking month, with nearly 3,400 bags of food handed out, all varying in size according to each family’s needs. The helpline is an immediate solution for people in need of groceries or a hot meal. When people call the helpline, they’re connected to the nearest neighborhood resource, like a food pantry.

And if July is any indicator of the increasing demand, Higgins said, the food bank will have to find a way to address the upcoming holiday spike in demand, since Thanksgiving is only a week away. All 3,000 of the Food Bank’s empty barrels, which are stored in a warehouse during the non-holiday season, are now distributed around the county. Higgins said he hopes to receive 750,000 pounds of donated food.

“When they [member agencies] start running low, we have to come up with ways,” Higgins said. “Saying ‘We don’t have food’ is not an option for us.”

Higgins said the food bank distributes enough food to feed 49,000 people, and that’s just in one week. He said November through January is the period when they receive a bulk of each year’s donations—about 85 percent. The donations come from school food drives, churches, businesses, and anyone who signs up to host their own food drive. Since the peak season has just begun, it’s just a matter of waiting for donations to stockpile the warehouse before he knows how this year will fare with the demand.

With the idea of convenience in mind, Higgins said the food bank established a Virtual Food Drive on its website about five years ago “because some people don’t want to do the traditional food drive,” he said.  This option allows a donor to shop in a virtual grocery story and pay with a credit card. Under each item it states the store-bought price versus the wholesale price the food bank is given, with some items costing 70 percent less.  This means the food bank is given more buying power, and donors can purchase fresh produce and perishable items that couldn’t otherwise by donated through traditional food drives. Also, according to the website, with each virtual donation, the food bank “can stretch every $1 you donate into $5 worth of food.”

Another community project aimed at helping low-income families with the stress of providing a holiday meal is the annual turkey giveaway this weekend held at Oakland Technical High School, on the last Sunday before Thankgiving. Through donations made by Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch and his family, about 300 turkeys and various side dishes will be handed out on a first-come, first-serve basis. Lynch, Octagon–a sponsorship consulting business representing Lynch, and Cal recruiting assistant Kevin Parker, with the help of the head football coach Delton Edwards, have held the giveaway for four years.  They have tried to increase the number of turkeys each year to ensure nobody is turned away.

Delton Edwards’ son, Delton Edwards Jr., said the inspiration behind the idea was simply to give back to the community, and that it’s a “blessing in return” to be able to provide for those less fortunate.

Spice Monkey, located at 1628 Webster St., is accepting donations for meal tickets until 10 p.m. on Friday, November 19. Marshawn Lynch’s turkey giveaway at Oakland Technical High School begins at 3 p.m. on Sunday, November 21.

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