Mike Dolbow has grand plans to bring meals to the food-insecure, including not just the residents of his trailer park in rural Escondido but throughout the state. But first, he needs a truck.
I meet Dolbow at the All Seasons RV Park about 15 miles north of Escondido, where he's lived in a fifth-wheel overlooking a small lake for the past seven years. Tucked between storage sheds and dozens of potted vegetable plants, a gazebo and patio set serve as a tranquil outdoor living room.
"I had a stroke in 2010 and had been going downhill ever since — diabetes, several heart attacks, the works," Dolbow begins his tale. "I had COBRA insurance, IRAs, all sorts of fallbacks lined up because of the career I was in. I kind of always knew I was going to get sick because of all the chemicals and things I was around. Over the period of five or six years, not only did all of that fail, social services failed.
"I lost my house, my career, everything. I used to live in Carlsbad. I had a nice house off Tamarack Avenue. I worked for Remec Defense [a since-shuttered military communications firm]. I was an aerospace engineering professor for almost 12 years."
During this period, Dolbow says his own fight with food insecurity nearly killed him.
"If you're getting $850 or $900 for disability, and your rent runs $800, then you're having to ration food, medications, everything. Literally, I was rationing myself about four ounces of food a day.
"Back then, I weighed about 280 — I got down to 129 pounds by last September."
"He's a proud guy," chimes in Samuel LaDue, a taxi driver and onetime neighbor of Dolbow's. “He wasn't going around letting anyone know about the trouble he was in.”
Following a hospital stay, LaDue moved in with Dolbow and his partner Lisa Sanders, where the others aided Dolbow's recovery and began forming a plan to get food in the hands of rural park residents.
"When I came back from the hospital, I started feeling better not just physically but mentally, because I was getting proper nutrition — people were sharing food with me," Dolbow continues. "But I noticed another elderly neighbor, a woman in her 80s, was getting skinnier and skinnier. Then I noticed another neighbor down here [waving downhill]. And I know what the pain of not eating is like — it's incredibly painful, I could see it in their face.
"Services out here are very limited. Meals on Wheels costs money; for us it's something we couldn't afford. When you go to food banks, if you can get a ride into town once a month, it'll still cost you at least five bucks. When we're talking about a difference of $50 between your rent and your total income, you can't afford that either."
The trio are in the process of forming a nonprofit they're calling Resurrection Circle, which will first focus on distributing food throughout rural Escondido, though Dolbow has loftier goals for the future.
"I have six families that I'm helping feed right now. I know of another ten that need it. What we've been doing so far is that I borrow Lisa's car and we're going to food pantries and I'll tell them, 'Hey, my neighbor is hungry.’ They'll let me grab an extra bag. I'll come back, load it in my cart here, and walk around the park, and that's where everything sort of started.
"People think if you live up here by Lawrence Welk, Hidden Meadows, you've got some money. But these places in unincorporated areas are some of the cheapest to live in. So, RV parks are no longer the hangouts of meth-heads, druggies, and alcoholics — they're havens for retired, disabled, and lower-income families now."
Dolbow also started gardening organically — pots cover every bit of spare ground at his RV site, filled with squash, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. He's even commandeered part of the hillside beyond his picket fence to expand the operation.
Resurrection Circle is in the process of finding community partners to get their hands on the quantities of food needed for a full-scale delivery service. Dolbow says he's talked to food banks willing to provide the meals, but donations are needed to secure both a delivery vehicle and refrigerated storage for food waiting to go out.
Ultimately, Dolbow wants to establish a self-contained organic farm. He excitedly thumbs through a binder of plans, explaining how he's developed a self-contained digester, a series of which he says could process as much as 500,000 pounds of food waste annually, extracting water and breaking materials down into a compound that would feed a large-scale hydroponic grow system. Hydroponics materials scattered around his yard indicate he's already working on a prototype, which will soon consume the area occupied by his soil-based operations.
The cost of this system, which Dolbow envisions also containing a freeze-drying facility for processing donated food that isn't spoiled but is still aesthetically unfit for supermarkets, is estimated at $350,000. Dolbow says he hopes to raise the funds over the course of the next three years. First, he needs a truck.