Oranges, broccoli, yams, onions and potatoes brighten the tables at the Oakland Food Pantry each Saturday and Wednesday afternoon, as more than 150 families come to choose fresh produce and bread.
The building it's in has come a long way. If you look closely, you can see its history. A sticker advertising malt liquor is still on the floor, and the side of the building is painted BEER – SODA – WINES.
For executive director Greg Harland, transforming a the site into a fresh food pantry is a point of pride.
"That’s the beauty of this place," he said. "We displaced a liquor store!"
Greg learned a lot about hunger in West Oakland while running for mayor in 2010. During the campaign, he went door-to-door asking residents what their biggest concerns were.
Again and again, he heard "food" -- affording enough of it, and finding healthy options close to home.
Food desert to food pantry
West Oakland is known as a "food desert," a place where healthy food is difficult to find. Though corner stores with soda and junk food line every major street, for many families the closest fresh greens are two bus transfers away. And that’s if they have the money to spare for groceries.
"Bodies need nutrition," said Janise, a retired nurse who visits the pantry for her husband and four sons. An injury forced her to retire early. Soon after, her husband was laid off. When her eldest sons moved back home to save money as they looked for work, Janise had to get creative about stretching every dollar to feed everyone.
Janise said being able to choose the types of produce she takes home is crucial to cooking healthy meals she knows her family will enjoy.
"It’s basic – you have to feed your brain, your body, your heart. This place makes it possible."
More produce, happier clients
At first, the pantry offered canned goods, with leftovers from nearby bakeries. Greg knew from his conversations with neighbors that his clients didn’t need more of the sweet stuff.
Once the pantry became a Food Bank member agency, Greg started to offer fresh fruit and vegetables — adding $0 to his budget. While agencies pay a tiny maintanence fee on non-perishable items, the Food Bank’s fresh fruits and vegetables are always free to member agencies.
These days, more than half of the poundage the Food Bank distributes to member agencies is fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, most grown right here in California.
"Offering vegetables and fruits has made a big difference in the way people choose what they’ll take home," he said. "At first, people didn’t grab the broccoli, but now it’s all gone at the end of the day. With availability comes change."
A healthy community
Greg said a client recently sent him a letter from her doctor saying that her health had improved in the months since she started taking home fresh produce.
"After running for mayor, working at the pantry is a pleasure," Greg said with a smile. "There’s so much change I’m seeing, so much positivity."
"Give the people cooking skills, produce and power -- and they’ll make the food stretch," Janise said. "This really honors us."
How you can help
Healthy food shouldn't be a luxury. That's why the Alameda County Community Food Bank is working hard to bring a bounty of fresh produce to families in need -- 12 million pounds this year alone.
Join us for FIELDS TO FAMILIES: THE 2012 SUMMER PRODUCE CHALLENGE and your donation will be matched, dollar-for-dollar, up to $65,000.