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An Inside Look: The AV Food Bank

Writing a story about the AV Food Bank after it has provided 40 years of service to our community turns out to be mostly a tale of many generous people. Robyn Harper whose name pops up regularly on lists of volunteer all-stars originally asked for a “call for volunteers” to be posted in Valley People. She ended up writing it herself as I spaced it out. Finally (several years later) it occurred that an in depth story would be both interesting and useful. Denise Mattei former president of the bank knew a lot about where to look for the story and each person she suggested knew of others. It is a pretty picture.

Each person responded to the question, “What is your connection to the food bank, why did you get involved?” Denise who was a teacher for 35 years said she retired and wanted an uncontroversial and straight-ahead way to serve. Jody Williams thought it was clear that food and housing were big issues for some in AV and Denise brought her in. She currently does the books. Benna Kolinsky found it was something she could offer the community. She loves to eat, she loves to grow food and has been a volunteer for 30 years! Daphne McNeil who together with Marge Evans founded the Food Bank in 1982 recalls it all started before Thanksgiving one year when she and Marge were attending the Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church. The Bishop was visiting from Santa Rosa and he announced, “It’s going to be a rough winter and we need to look out for our neighbors”. Daphne said that both she and Marge were “Zinged” by that message. Around the same time a young boy from Philadelphia (the city of brotherly love) was making the news by helping to raise funds for the “homeless” when the homeless were just beginning to rise to national attention. They both knew there was hunger in the valley. They reached out to what were then two Methodist churches and the Catholic Church and together they put together the first food bags in time for Thanksgiving. Everyone involved agreed to keep it going after the holiday and the Methodist Church in BV offered their back room as a collection and distribution point, which it continued to be for the next 35 years! At this point something that had just been a generous impulse in two women’s minds became an organization that has affected the lives of thousands of people. Margaret Mead once wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the ONLY thing that ever has.” Amen and Awomen.

The way the food bank works is this: Benna who handles orders calls the Fort Bragg Food Bank who gets their food from The Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa. She has lists she pulls off of and they try to honor her requests or replace them with equivalent items. The trick is to estimate how many people will show up needing food. Local donations are also made by farmers and others. If you have something to donate including can goods that are not outdated you can bring them to the Food Bank 2nd and 4th Wed. AM to be included when they pack the food. The food is a mixture of fresh produce, staples, canned goods and even some meat. Each family gets 2 bags and a box. Seniors have an additional special senior box. This is not the old fashioned surplus food- of just a chunk of cheese, powdered milk, p-nut butter, margarine and other USDA surplus food. The food is much more varied these days.

Anyone in real need could take advantage of this abundant and generous offering, which happens at the Grange every second and fourth Wed. of the month between 2:30 and 5:30. Food will be brought to your car by volunteers. Please be prepared to share your name, address and the number of people in your household. Seniors are required to show ID to verify their age. No one needing food is ever turned away.

The operation is as follows: Benna orders the food a few days ahead of the Wed. delivery. A man named Jeff from the Fort Bragg Food Bank delivers the food and looks out for AV interests by making sure any shortfall of unavailable items is filled with good substitutes. Benna and her crew “the packers” start packing the bags with pantry items on hand and then help Jeff unload and pack the rest. They get everything ready inside for Robyn and her crew “the distributors” arrives in time to move the bags to outside distribution tables and be ready for the 2:30 first arrivals in their cars. And so it goes. A very smooth operation.

Daphne told me that in the beginning there were about 25 families coming for pick-ups. Today that number is 130 and growing. The increase in volume made it necessary to move to larger quarters. The Grange stepped up and for a fair rent they house a large pantry closet (former coat closet) and a huge fridge and a huge freezer provided by Fort Bragg Food Bank. The storage makes it possible to hold over food from one Wed. to the next.

There are many good stories from over the years. One involves two former AV residents Lucinda and Tom Seeger. They were transplants from Los Angeles who lived near the tollhouse on the Ukiah road. They showed up with 25 turkeys and 25 giant teddy bears for the Xmas distribution. The AV Fire Department does a toy drive every year organized by Sarah McCarter and they bring the toys to the Xmas distribution one toy for each child. Gowans donates apples, the Land donates produce and small pies, the churches collect food, the AVA helped then as now to publicize the Food Bank and in the beginning there was no radio station and there was no Internet. Daphne told me, “It was before the Grange burned down.” So that’s a while ago.

People were always working to maximize the good. Sometimes when there was extra food they took it to the senior center and gave it to the seniors. Burt at Boontberry let them order produce through his suppliers when they needed to. The Boonville Hotel hosts a fundraiser ever year that includes soup and a tree lighting with entertainment. Many local or once local people have put the food bank on their yearly donation list. Some donate quite substantially. There is a donate button on the website so if you are so inclined you too can donate at any time. Just Google Anderson Valley Food Bank. Fort Bragg Food Bank has even started paying for our bags through the Ukiah Paper Company. Both State and Local government funnel funds into food banks that end up supporting our food bank. The Redwood Empire Food Bank is the mega entity that passes food to Fort Brag that passes it to us. The Food Bank does pay the food for it but fees are nominal and very fair.

There are so many people who have volunteered or donated or lent a hand. Some of the names include, Kathleen McKenna and Sandra Nimmons – two other all-star volunteers. Jill Meyers, Val Smith, Grace Espinoza, Kathy Cox, Marty Roderick, Donna Pierson-Pugh, Ginny McConnell, Courtney Bailey. To name a few.

Marge Evans who many of you knew when she and her husband owned Well Spring passed recently and Daphne her co-founder attended her service in Sonoma. Marge was a big joiner- member of walking, reading, quilting, church etc. groups so many there to celebrate her life. All were asked to bring a quilt that Marge had made for them if they had one. 40 people turned up with quilts! Such generosity.

Courtney Bailey outgoing secretary did the hard work of getting an EIN (employee identification number) and now they are looking for a lawyer you would be willing to help them fill out the paperwork for non-profit status on a pro bono basis. If you know of anyone who could help please call Benna at (707-367-2444). The current board includes: Benna Kolinsky - president, Robyn Harper - vice-president, Jody Williams - treasurer, Gary Wakeman - secretary, Greg Brunson - at large.

If you think you would like to be involved on any level just come to the food bank when it is open and tell the staff you’re ready to help. A great way to make a difference and also to meet people who really care.

For me this reflection by Robyn says a lot, “Really seeing the people and how grateful they are. For example once a mushroom farmer brought us some of his oyster mushrooms to distribute. The people were so delighted; the look on their faces was heartwarming. You can’t solve all the problems of the world but you can help people get through today.”

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