It’s like a regular supermarket, without any bells or whistles, and with a different kind of customer. You’re not allowed to shop here unless you’re tax exempt. In other words, you need a tax form called a 501(c)(3).
“About a quarter of all the food we distribute comes through this area,” Jim Jackson says, indicating the marketplace area of the Food Bank warehouse. “This is the interface with the public.”
Jackson is the executive director of the San Diego Food Bank. A baby boomer with a kind, smile-lined face, he stands over six feet tall. His scholarly looking glasses and gray hair contribute to a professorial air. Before Jackson came to the Food Bank, in a midcareer shift in August 2007, he spent 7 years as president of the San Diego Rescue Mission. He’s also a PhD who taught college history for 20 years.
“When someone puts something in our red barrels, that food comes here,” he says. “There was nearly 4H tons of food collected at the Chargers’ game on Sunday. Well, that all came here.”
Donated food is picked up by one of the five drivers the Food Bank keeps on staff. Some food also comes in by way of delivery.
“We get 85 to 88 thousand pounds of food from Vons every month,” Jackson states. “It’s product that they have decided they can’t use. It might be that the label is torn, or it’s nearing its expiration date. There’s a variety of reasons why they couldn’t reclaim it. And they’ve collected it together, and we’re the beneficiaries of much of what they do.”
After goods come into the Food Bank, they’re inspected, catalogued, and placed among the makeshift “shelves.” (Actually, the items are laid out on the warehouse floor in oversized shipping boxes.)
“It’s a wide variety of stuff,” Jackson says. “And we can’t always predict what’s going to come in. In addition to the cans and dry goods, we have produce. We give the produce away.”
Jackson points to the checkout scale. “Over there, people pay by the pound.”
Valdivia and Bode, the clerks, are handling a transaction. Behind them, a dry-erase board with colored marker lists prices:
Assorted Food $.20/lb
Assorted Water $.10/lb
Assorted Beverages $.15/lb
Assorted Snacks $.10/lb
Refrigerated Items $.25/lb
Assorted Frozen $.25/lb
Frozen Meat $.50/lb
Assorted Cereal $1.00/lb
Assorted Coffee $1.00/lb
Misc. Non-Foods $.25
Household Items $.50/lb
Personal Care $1.00/lb
“That helps defray the cost of running the Food Bank,” Jackson says. “We call it ‘shared maintenance fees.’ And it’s a way to keep the lights on.”
It takes an awful lot of lights to light the San Diego Food Bank warehouse. The place is huge, over 87,000 square feet. “One guy from the state came, and he looked down here and said, ‘As food banks go, this is the Taj Mahal.’ ”
But a lot of costs are associated with running a Taj Mahal–sized warehouse.
“And that,” Jackson says, “is how the agencies help.”
Agencies are the ones who get to shop at the Food Bank. Two hundred sixty-nine local agencies stock their pantries here. They’re the local tax-exempt organizations that hold a valid 501(c)(3).
Dedicated to Helping
Maria Olivas never veers and she’s always in control.
She’s driving her car and steering with her knee, talking and using her hands to punctuate her convictions and looking at directions propped on the steering wheel.
All at once.
And yet she seems…perfectly…calm.
Even after an eventual wrong turn — which isn’t her fault — Olivas pulls out a map book — without slowing down — and then stops the car for barely a moment to pinpoint her location, determine where she is and where she’s going and what went wrong. “I have no luck with MapQuest,” she says, cheerfully. “I should just use the map book.”
Turns out Olivas was a quartermaster in the Navy. For those who don’t know, Navy quartermasters are trained to be experts in navigation.
Olivas, 28, is the agency relations coordinator at the San Diego Food Bank.
“I coordinate all the relations between the Food Bank and nonprofit agencies,” she’s been saying while driving. “The agencies vary from rehabilitation centers to inner-city youth organizations, soup kitchens, day-care centers, senior centers, and churches. Anyone who has a 501(c)(3) can be a nonprofit agency. And to work with us they have to be dedicated to helping at-risk youth, seniors, and low-income populations.”
Olivas has only been with the Food Bank for about a year, but she has already visited many of the 269 agencies. She estimates that within another year or so, she will have personally visited them all.
“To monitor an agency,” Olivas says, “it isn’t just going to visit the agency. We also see what they’re purchasing in the marketplace. So, if you’re telling me you’re serving 30 people, and you come in and you want a pallet of lettuce, that’s way too much for 30 people. It doesn’t make sense. So we keep an eye on that, and we make sure the numbers match up. My job is to make sure that the food is going to the proper populations.”
Today, Olivas is paying a visit to a church pantry. Freedom in Christ in El Cajon distributes food to church members and to anyone else in its community who is in need.
She works three 12-hour days and two 8-hour days every week at the Food Bank. “I wanted to work in the nonprofit world because I came from a low-income background,” Olivas says. She grew up in Los Angeles, joined the military after high school, and was stationed in San Diego. Then she majored in anthropology at San Diego State.
She also waits tables at an Applebee’s Restaurant. And Olivas is working towards a master’s degree in public health at San Diego State. Somehow, this pretty young woman with long dark hair is as cheerful as can be.
“You work for a nonprofit because you love it,” Olivas says, using one of her favorite words. “And I truly do love it. I have had many opportunities to leave. I was in archaeology prior to being here, and I made plenty more. But I don’t mind being here 12 hours a day, because I love doing this. And then on the weekends, there’s always something to do, like a food drive or an event or trying to get donors to donate, and, you know what? I always volunteer. I’m always there. Wednesday morning we’re having a run for the hungry, and I’ll be there. It’s just something that I love to do, so I don’t mind it at all. It’s just so fulfilling and so caring and warm.”