At Spice Monkey, last-minute food donations meet goal

Food bank volunteers pack meals for children with cereal, milk, beans and rice. Photo courtesy of the Alameda County Community Food Bank.

Food bank volunteers pack meals for children with cereal, milk, beans and rice. Photo courtesy of the Alameda County Community Food Bank.

A week before Thanksgiving, Spice Monkey Café and Restaurant co-owner Kanitha Matoury had been worried that food donations would fall short of her 1,000 pound goal.

The restaurant, located at 1628 Webster Street, hosts one of several food drives in downtown Oakland aimed at stocking the food pantries, soup kitchens, and senior centers served by the Alameda County Community Food Bank. At that point, the four bins at Spice Monkey had collected only 300 pounds of food, far short of the total at the same time last year. Matoury had even offered an incentive—a free Thanksgiving dinner with a donation of 10 or more cans of nonperishable food—but giving remained slow. So rather than sticking to her planned cut-off date for the Thanksgiving dinner deal, Matoury decided to continue her promotion a week longer to see if she could collect a few extra cans.

Then, she said, donations flooded in. Thanksgiving reservations jumped from 75 to 175 in a week’s time, filling Spice Monkey’s barrels with cans for the food bank, well over the 1,000 pound target. “We got a lot of people at the last minute,” Matoury said. “I feel like I’m very blessed.”

Matoury attributed the food drive’s slow start to the effects of the recession in Oakland, but said that the offer of a free Thanksgiving dinner brought out residents’ generosity. “Every year since the recession, a lot less people are donating,” Matoury said. “I think it’s really important. We say ‘You give some, we give some.’ I think that’s why it’s a success.”

Matoury took pride in her Thanksgiving dinner offerings, which included turkey, brussel sprouts, couscous, five-berry cranberry sauce, and stuffing—all made fresh. “It feels really good to give,” Matoury said. “People were practically licking their plates clean.” A group of people arrived without a reservation or the required 10-can donation, but in the spirit of the season, Matoury said she accommodated them on the condition they donate in the future. “Who can deny someone if they’re hungry?” Matoury said. “We take them in. We make them promise to bring cans later.”

The Alameda County food bank distributes food to approximately 49,000 people each week, but demand is rising, another result of a tough economic environment. Calls to the food holiday helpline (800-870-FOOD) are up 17 percent over last year, and 2009 “shattered all records,” said Miranda Everitt, a spokesperson for the food bank. Everitt said the recession has affected donation rates countywide. “We know that charities are cutting back because they’re feeling pressures,” she said. “As the economy is officially out of recession now, we hope the people remember those in the community that still need a helping hand.”

Everitt said it is hard to gauge how successful the holiday drive has been—a more complete figure will be available in January after the holiday giving season is over—but she said that contributions from individuals and food drives, like the one at Spice Monkey, have worked toward the food bank’s goal of 750,000 pounds of donations. “We have a lot of strong partnerships,” Everitt said. “We’re proud to say community is our middle name and the donations speak to that.”

In addition to Spice Monkey, several Oakland businesses are offering promotional campaigns to encourage donations to the food bank. Acorn Wellness Center at 2929 Summit Street is discounting a chiropractic treatment with a donation of three cans. East Bay Lucky Supermarkets are offering a recipe book with a checkout donation of $5 or more to the food bank. If you’d prefer to donate directly to the food bank, its site lists several ways to do so, including a food drop-off at its 7900 Edgewater Drive location, monetary contributions, and “virtual food drives.” Instead of donating food you’ve already purchased, a virtual food drive allows you to shop in an online supermarket for produce that the food bank can then purchase at a discounted rate, using a donation you provide via credit card.

Everitt said she is concerned there will still be a significant need for food donations after holiday beneficence fades. Though the holidays typically bring a spike in donations, Everitt said need for assistance has continued to rise regardless of the time of year. “Hunger is a year round problem,” she said. “People all have to eat three meals a day, 365 days a year. It’s a warm and fuzzy thing to think of during Christmas, but the need is year round.”

Even though Thanksgiving has passed, the barrels at Spice Monkey are still out to accept customer donations. Matoury says the restaurant will continue to collect cans throughout the season to help the East Bay’s hungry. “People out there still need our help,” Matoury said. “We need to give back, even if it’s not the holiday. We need to give every day.”

If you are in need of food or wish to donate, contact the Alameda County Community Food Bank online or call (800) 870-FOOD. If you know of other organizations collecting or distributing food this holiday season, comment below and let the reading community know how to contribute.

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