Revised to clarify Calfresh outreach program funding came from the state of California and was no longer available to the County of Ventura to contract with FOOD Share.

Back in the 1980s, Margaret de la M was facing a divorce, relying on public assistance and going to school — all while raising four children, ages 16, 15, 7 and 3.

“I had been a homemaker with no work experience for almost 20 years,” recalled de la M, a resident of Oxnard who started college in her early 40s, and ended up earning dual master’s degrees in English and philosophy.

Margaret de la M with her four children whom she raised in the 1980s with the help of FOOD Share.

For the last 27 years, she’s been employed by the Ventura County Community College District as both an English instructor and a training professional.

Today, she largely credits FOOD Share for helping her get back on her feet by providing her family with nutritious food in one of its greatest times of need.

“Without a doubt, FOOD Share provided a lot of groceries for my family of five,” said de la M, who was a FOOD Share recipient from 1986 to 1990. “They gave out generous basics such as canned goods, baking provisions and, of course, fruits and vegetables.”

She initially heard about FOOD Share through WIC, which recommended she look into the nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to feeding the hungry of Ventura County.

Initially, she felt “apprehensive and slightly embarrassed” about tapping into FOOD Share so her family could eat.

“I had been married to a professional with an upper-class standard of living,” de la M said. “But it was very easy once I got there, and my nervousness was replaced with gratitude as the workers, volunteers and staff … made the experience comfortable.”

Looking back on her experience with FOOD Share, she has a more positive attitude toward public assistance.

“I learned back then that public services are not just for the homeless or destitute — that is a myth,” de la M said. Rather, “FOOD Share helps bridge gaps, or provides temporary sustenance, or uplifts the ordinary citizen during troubled times. This was my experience, so although this unfortunate myth still exists, I hope it evolves so that many more people can benefit during times of food insecurity.”

One in six people go to bed hungry

Interim CEO Monica White with Margaret de la M of Oxnard.

Every night in Ventura County, one in six people go to bed hungry, said Monica White, interim CEO at FOOD Share.

“There are instances where people may not fall into the poverty level, but they’ve fallen on hard times,” White explained. “They could have lost their job, face unexpected medical bills or any unplanned expenses. There’s a variety of reasons but everyone has their own situation of why they come up short for the month.”

“Some might have to make the decision between paying the electricity or going to the grocery store — it’s not right that anyone has to make that decision,” White said. “So it’s not necessarily people that are at the poverty level. They are just in a situation where they need to supplement their groceries to feed their family.”

The working poor

The homeless population makes up “a very small percentage” of FOOD Share clients, and appearances can be deceiving, said Karen Jensen, food sourcing director. She recalled an instance in Thousand Oaks, where a man in an SUV came to pick up food for his family.

“He was glad that he had the SUV because he and his family were living in this car,” Jensen said. “This is happening all over Ventura County, and it’s not necessarily the homeless” living without any kind of shelter at all.

Bob Showalter obtains food from FOOD Share to operate the food pantry at Lighthouse Bible Church in Simi Valley.

During a recent pickup at FOOD Share’s operations in Oxnard, Showalter collected heirloom tomatoes, onions, turkeys and cakes — among other items.

“We serve just under 100 people a week,” Showalter said. “Most of them are simply the working poor. They’re single parents working two or three jobs part time. There are people on social security or disability. And there’s the elderly — we have one woman who’s a disabled adult living with her two grandkids.”

During FOOD Share’s fiscal year from 2016 to 2017, the nonprofit distributed more than 11 million pounds of food to approximately 74,500 people per month, which equates to more than 9 million meals.

This was made possible through more than 200 partner agencies throughout Ventura County that distribute the food, as well as nearly 2,100 volunteers who donated more than 34,000 hours of their time.

The food donated to FOOD Share comes from a variety of sources, including local growers, retail markets, food drives and individuals. 

“Only about 3 percent of the food at FOOD Share is actually purchased,” White noted.

“That means within our budget last year, only 300,000 [pounds] of the 11 million pounds of food distributed was purchased, such as rice and beans,” White explained. “The rest of it is generously donated from local farmers, growers, manufacturers and from retail markets such as Vons, Ralph’s, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Target and Costco. They have food they no longer sell that are still safe and usable that is donated to us.”

A new budget

August 23 marked the 60th day that White took over FOOD Share as its interim CEO, replacing Bonnie Atmore, who served at the helm of the organization from 2008 to June 2017.

“It’s been two months and I’m learning as quickly as I can,” she said in August. “But when I first came in it was the end of our fiscal year, so it was all about building a new budget.”

There were some expense reductions, “which were difficult but necessary,” White noted. “We started July 1 with a solid plan and commitment to be able to continue helping the 74,500 people that we serve every month.”

If you look at FOOD Share’s 990 IRS form, it includes the value of the food, which is around $18 million.

“Feeding America, which we are a member of, puts a value per pound on all donated food,” White explained. “So when you look at the 990 it shows FOOD Share is a $22 million organization. But for the purpose of our operating budget we subtract out the value of the donated food leaving us with a budget of $2.9 million.”

Funding comes from diverse revenue sources. For instance, about a quarter comes from general donations, which is the public.

“And we have extremely loyal donors that send us a check every month, or some that prefer to do an annual donation,” White said. “We also have corporations, organizations and foundations that generously donate to the cause.”

Money also comes from fundraisers held throughout the year: Three FOOD Share fundraisers take place in September, including the Ventura Art and Street Painting Festival, the Annual Blue Jean Ball and an event called the Visayan Association Fishing Derby. Other fundraisers that take place throughout the year include the Annual Can-Tree Food Drive, Cheesecake Factory’s Peanut Butter Drive, ABC 7 Feed SoCal and the annual Letter Carriers Food Drive.

At FOOD Share’s recent Blue Jean Ball fundraiser, Vanessa Bechtel, president and CEO of Ventura County Community Foundation presented a check to White for FOOD Share in the amount of $204,000.

“We are incredibly grateful for VCCF’s generous donation. Vanessa and the VCCF board of directors understand our mission and this donation helps put FOOD Share in a position to keep moving forward.”

White projects to meet FOOD Share’s revenue budget of $2.9 million through a combination of donation from individual donors, organizations, foundations and corporations.   

“There are so many organized efforts that help us,” White said. “They understand FOOD Share is an important cause and people want to help.”

Budget cuts

One of the most recent major changes at FOOD Share was the elimination of the nonprofit’s contract with the County of Ventura to perform outreach efforts for CalFresh, which is the California term for food stamps.

“We had received the CalFresh contract from the county for the last seven years to help people sign up for the CalFresh program. It was a great partnership since many of the people visiting our pantries were also eligible to receive CalFresh benefits. It’s a great way to supplement their food supply,” White explained.

The CalFresh outreach contract amounted to nearly $600,000 annually, “but the outreach part of the program was cut by the state so it was no longer available to the county to contract to FOOD Share,” she said.

As a result, nine FOOD Share employees aligned with the CalFresh program were laid off from their jobs.

“Because it was a separate program, there were some employees that were specifically attached to it,” White said. “We were able to repurpose two of them and find them jobs within the organization, but unfortunately not for the rest of them.”

Losing CalFresh does not mean that FOOD Share has less food.

“This year we received a grant from California for $148,000 in which we can buy California-grown or -produced food,” White said. “So we’re finding alternate means to provide the same level of service.”

Before White took over, her predecessor, Bonnie Atmore, was making $191,000 a year in 2015, according to the most recent tax return available on Guidestar.org. 

FOOD Share currently has a staff of around 30 paid employees, including White, who earns approximately $108,000 a year.

“I was contracted at $10,000 per month as interim, but included myself in the 10 percent pay cut for all staff earning over $40,000 a year,” White said. “It was the right thing to do. If my staff was going to be affected by the pay cuts, I needed to be a part of it too. It was not a discussion item.”

Volunteers

Volunteer helps FOOD Share client at local community market.

In addition to the staff, FOOD Share is supported by up to 600 volunteers who help out every month.

“Without them, we wouldn’t be here,” White said.

Kathleen O’Connell, 67, joined the volunteer ranks in 2011 after touring the FOOD Share facility. At the time, she had just retired from Curves Gym, where she worked for five years. Prior to that, she was a case manager for families at Livingston Memorial Hospice.

“I found myself saying, ‘Well, now what do I do?’ ” recalled O’Connell of Ventura. “I had to do something physical and fun, for sure, and volunteering had always been a rewarding part of my life.”

When she toured FOOD Share’s 38,000-square-foot facility, she was in awe of the can sorting program, where volunteers worked diligently around moving conveyor belts sorting food.

“At first I worked in the can sorting department,” O’Connell remembered. “What a workout that can be. That conveyor belt just keeps going around and around, and I was trying to compete with it, all those cans flying fast.”

One day, a staff member asked O’Connell if she could help out with a group of preschoolers who were coming out to plant veggies in the giant garden boxes located outside of FOOD Share’s headquarters in Oxnard. This garden on site is also known as The Teaching Garden.

“I have been playing in the dirt ever since,” O’Connell said. “The Teaching Garden is meant just for that purpose — to teach kids and their families to becoming sustainable and grow some food for themselves.”

She has fond memories of a time when 20 children from a local youth group came to a planting event.

“As the program broadened, we started having Girl Scout groups come to participate in a well-designed, six-month course in order to earn a FOOD Share badge,” O’Connell noted. “These little ones are our future. It is important to me to show them the majesty … of nature and how easy it is to grow our own food.”

While there are many nonprofit organizations within Ventura County, O’Connell chose FOOD Share as the place to volunteer for basic reasons, she said.

“If our children are hungry, they learn slowly and have difficulties with energy and aptitude,” O’Connell said. “We want kids to know how to plant foods at home and how simple and fun it can be.”

Additionally, knowing that FOOD Share helps 74,500 people per month “is very appealing to me,” she said.

“Volunteering at FOOD Share has proven to be healthy on several levels for me and all who participate,” O’Connell said. “I read a quote the other day — we might think we are nurturing the garden, but of course, the garden is nurturing us.”

The future

FOOD Share will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year.

“We’ve been growing and building every year,” said White, who also served on the FOOD Share board of directors from 2012 to 2015. “When people ask me how they can help, the three things we can always use are volunteers, food donations and, of course, cash donations are always extremely appreciated.”

One of the newest offerings at FOOD Share is the Senior Kit Program, which targets Ventura County residents who are 60 years old and older.

“It’s a monthly box of food — 33 pounds of milk, cheese, pasta, peanut butter, cereal, juice and canned fruit and vegetables,” White said.

The Senior Kit Program first launched in February of this year. In June, “we were distributing 1,200 boxes a month,” she said.

“We’re anticipating that we’re going to reach 2,000 boxes distributed this month and we have the capacity to serve 3,500,” she said. “At this point, we’re looking for more seniors to give these to.”

A valuable link

Margaret de la M studied at both California Lutheran University and California State University, Northridge, to earn her master’s degrees in English and philosophy.

Although FOOD Share may not have had a direct influence on her job at the Ventura County Community College District, “They were certainly part of the necessary resources when my family was financially crippled by divorce.”

For her, this meant losing about half of the family income, “which in my case meant becoming even more resourceful, shopping conservatively and locating various services,” de la M said.

FOOD Share was one of several organizations that made the difficult days better, she noted.

“FOOD Share did provide a valuable link in my family’s support chain during those lean years,” de la M recalled. “Looking back, I think it was also important to realize there were people and organizations who cared about my family. I was always amazed at the numerous organizations in our community that provide help.”

One of the biggest misconceptions about FOOD Share is that it serves only the chronic poor or homeless, de la M noted.

“In reality, they provide assistance for people in a variety of situations,” she said. “In my case, I was unemployed and going to college, and although I did have child support, I needed help until I graduated and began working. I discovered that participating in food assistance was not humiliating or demeaning. Instead it was a temporary necessity and a useful tool during my time of difficulty.”

She hopes that others experiencing food insecurity are aware of organizations like FOOD Share.

“However, my concern is that food insecurity may be increasing,” de la M said. “So now it feels imperative that myths give way to reality: Making the best of difficult times can require great resources from within and from without. I am exceedingly glad Food Share was there during my difficult times.
To volunteer, make a donation or for more information, visit www.foodshare.com