Katherine Smith made her first visit last week to get donated food from the Mobile Fresh truck at Carroll Fowler Elementary School.
“I came to help my family,” said Smith. “Times get hard, and it is the holiday time.”
With a family of five, she said, it’s been a struggle to make ends meet.
Smith is the mother of twin boys in first grade at Fowler and 16-month-old Calsey. She is a stay-at-home mom, and her husband works in security.
Ceres Unified School District partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank, a nonprofit organization that serves eight area counties, to bring its food truck to CUSD schools.
By 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, the line for the food truck was around the block from the school’s gate. The truck was running about an hour late, but the more than 150 people in line waited patiently. Everyone was chatting and enjoying the crisp, sunny morning. The mood seemed more like cousins waiting for the barbecue chicken at a family picnic than the stereotypical food bank.
The scene illustrated the Central Valley’s struggles with feeding its own despite being in the agricultural heart of America.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food to lead an active, healthy life. Nearly 1 million people in the Central Valley do not know where their next meal is coming from.
Bringing food to where it’s needed
The Second Harvest Mobile Fresh truck is based in Manteca, where it gets loaded with donated food, including fresh produce. Five days a week, it travels to distribution sites, such as those at Ceres schools.
Once the Mobile Fresh truck arrived, more than a dozen parent volunteers, as well as Second Harvest volunteers, unloaded the food and prepared to distribute it to the needy families.
“At Carroll Fowler, we have 87% of our students that get free or reduced lunch,” said Emily Harry, principal of Fowler Elementary. “So our families really need the food.”
Nearly one in six Ceres residents lives at or below the poverty line.
Edith Narayan, principal at Walter White Elementary School, recognized that hungry kids can’t learn. In May 2018, after dinner with a friend who was a warehouse manager for Second Harvest, she came up with the idea of bringing the food truck to her school.
She visited Shackelford Elementary School in Modesto to see its summer food partnership with Second Harvest.
“I saw the lines, the volunteers’ energy and the gratefulness of the people,” said Narayan. “It was amazing, and I thought I had to get this for our school.”
Arrangements were made for Second Harvest to distribute food at the August 2018 Back-to-School Night at Walter White Elementary, and the lines were around the block.
“It was a shock to see such a huge line waiting for food,” said Narayan, “Those families were so grateful.”
Walter White has about 600 students from preschool through sixth grade. Free lunch is served for all students because of the high poverty rate. Narayan said most of the parents work at low-paying jobs, many of them agriculture-related.
The food program was so well-received that Jay Simmonds, assistant superintendent for CUSD, and district leadership worked to expand it to 11 other schools.
“We feed anybody,” said Simmonds.
He said there are no requirements; families do not have to have a student enrolled in CUSD or prove financial eligibility.
This past summer, Starbucks Corp. donated $150,000 to Second Harvest specifically to support the Ceres program. The Mobile Fresh truck now goes to a different CUSD school every other week.
“Starbucks found out about us,” said Simmonds. “I’m not even sure how they found out. But, they loved what was happening and they wanted it to continue.”
Food insecurity in the Central Valley
Jessica Vaughan, development director for Second Harvest, said the organization is seeing an increase in the number of people visiting its sites, and many factors are contributing, especially the rising costs of housing, food and other essentials.
The nonprofit has most of its locations in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, and is the local partner of the national anti-hunger organization Feeding America. The largest groups it serves are working poor families and senior citizens.
“We reach 30,000 people each month,” Vaughan said.
CUSD is the only area school district that hosts the Mobile Fresh truck, which eliminates the need for transportation while distributing fresh foods such as produce and eggs, which are not common in food pantries.
“It’s great food like from a grocery,” said Narayan, “The families are so happy to get fresh produce and milk and things that our students really need.”
After going through the line, Calsey was happily playing with a banana. She was sitting in a wagon filled with bananas, milk, eggs, Starbucks-brand snack boxes and fresh veggies.
“When they leave with a trunk full of food, we know they have food to cook dinner for our students,” said Harry, the principal at Fowler. “It’s just a great feeling.”
This story was produced with financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of this work.
For additional information or to donate or volunteer with Second Harvest Food Bank, visit its website at https://www.shfb.org/ or call 866-234-3663
A list of area food assistant programs can be found at: https://www.csustan.edu/counseling/community-resources/food-insecurity