The San Joaquin Valley — the most productive farming region on the planet — is America’s food basket.
The Valley grows more than 250 crops. When coupled with its weaker cousin in terms of farm production — the Sacramento Valley — the two combined produce 25 percent of this nation’s table food using only one percent of the farmland.
It is against this background of plenty that the Manteca-based Second Harvest Food Bank of the Greater Valley is fighting the battle against hunger in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties along with five adjoining foothill counties.
Second Harvest of the Greater Valley is among 200 similar operations nationwide affiliated with Feeding America. The member food banks serve as distribution centers to funnel food to community pantries much like the Safeway distribution center in Tracy supplies stores throughout Northern California.
The partner food closets in the eight counties serve 35,000 unduplicated individuals each month.
The warehouse operation handles more than 15 million pounds of food a year.
It arrives in the warehouse in several forms. There are gigantic bins of produce that cost the food bank 6 cents to 20 cents a pound via the Farm to Family program that connects growers and packers directly to food banks for low cost fruits and vegetables. They aren’t considered marketable due to size, shape, slight blemishes, or overproduction.
There are pallets of goods delivered by sponsors such as ConAgra Foods. There are gigantic boxes and bins of miscellaneous items pulled from grocery store shelves because they are at or nearing advertised shelf life.
Then there are canned goods and such secured from various collection drives conducted by youth groups and non-profits.
All of that has to be sorted, set aside by food type, and then re-boxed or bagged.
Some of the items they receive aren’t food such as detergent, shampoo and toothpaste. They gladly accept the items and send them to food banks knowing those that ultimately receive them will be able to free up what limited money they have to buy food or perhaps pay a water or power bill.
Volunteers play a huge and critical role. They provide needed manpower to sort the food. Volunteers wanting to help can do so for a few hours or a half a day. Volunteers can do so once or as many times as they like. The tasks are essentially sorting cans and sorting produce. They can also help with free food distribution from a truck that takes fresh vegetables and fruits to area communities at scheduled locations.
The biggest “puzzles” that volunteers sort out are the boxes that come from stores such a Target, SaveMart, Safeway and Walmart.
They typically contain food that has reached its expiration date based on marketable shelf life. But that doesn’t mean the food isn’t still good — far from it.
Second Harvest staff has become experts at reading expiration dates. Specific food has specific times where they are still good after the stamped shelf life is reached.
While perishables such as dairy products do not last long afterwards, canned goods and packaged items typically have a useful life of six months to a year depending upon the food item.
There is little worry once the sorted items are provided to the 102 food banks of the food going bad. It is almost always consumed within weeks of reaching a food pantry.
Fundraising is critical to the effectiveness of Second Harvest. While the donations of large items of food stuff by producers, distributors, and retail stores is the backbone of how the nonprofit agency helps feed struggling arrangements, donated funds allows them to purchase perishable items such as produce.
Due to arrangements Second Harvest has made, $1 can buy the equivalent of $5 worth of food.
To explore volunteer opportunities, donate, or find out more information about the non-profit, go to localfoodbank.org.