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Agency ready to lend a helping hand

April 30, 2001|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer

People in Imperial County who find themselves in need of help obtaining free food or food at low cost can turn to the Imperial Valley Food Bank or any of its participating agencies.

"There's a lot of people out there who don't know we exist," said Tito Huerta, incoming Food Bank executive director. "We're here to help the poor."

The Food Bank has numerous programs to help distribute food to people who need it or want it, and while some programs are for those with low-to-moderate income, there are others that do not have income requirements.

For example, the Imperial Valley Cares Food Box program is not income-dependent.

"The food boxes are sold to anybody who wants them, for $18," Huerta said, adding the boxes contain $45 worth of food. In addition to the standard items in the boxes, surplus items obtained by the Food Bank are included at no additional cost.

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Huerta said the Food Bank gets the food for the box program from Yuma but expects to soon take on the whole program locally by obtaining the food directly from a federal program called Second Harvest.

"We hope to put that in place as soon as possible," he said.

Orders for food boxes must be placed by the second Tuesday of each month by paying for the boxes at the Food Bank on Applestill Road, adjacent to the Sheriff's Office on Clark Road. The boxes are available for pickup the following Thursday. Food stamps can be used in place of cash.

Items found in a food box include cereal, macaroni and cheese, ramen noodles, canned vegetables, peanut butter, juice, pinto beans, rice, pasta, snack bars, pork and beans, eggs, potatoes, margarine, milk, hot dogs, chicken and fish sticks.

The Food Bank had its origins about 10 years ago. Its founders include El Centro resident Richard Ryan, Brawley resident Shirley Augusta and former Valley resident Carl Bell.

Ryan said contrary to common belief, the Food Bank did not have its beginnings in his garage.

"We started out at the Imperial fairgrounds' small animal barn," he said. "We collected canned food and distributed it to nonprofits. It's always been very grassroots and close to the community."

Ryan said the idea came from the United Nations celebration of World Food Day and an associated conference when people realized there is abundant food to be found in agricultural areas, from which the local Food Bank gets much of its fresh produce.

"In the last couple of years it's really taken off," Ryan said, "so much so that it's now being shared with other areas and the state. We've made really good use of that."

Ryan, a San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus public administration professor, said the Food Bank was created locally due to the need, because the county has the lowest per capita income in the state and the availability of ag products that do not go to market.

As more and more resources gravitate toward the Food Bank, it has become the recipient of grant moneys from the state and federal governments.

The Food Bank has become large enough in its 10 years that it has outgrown its first warehouse and is getting ready to celebrate the grand opening of its second warehouse May 10.

The new facility — adjacent to the old — is the pride of Marty Tracey, former Food Bank executive director and current economic development specialist for the city of El Centro.

Tracey said he recognized the need for more storage space and to be able to drive into the warehouse coolers to minimize the amount of manual labor associated with lifting large quantities of food. He said the volume of foodstuffs moving through the Food Bank increased from 7,200 pounds in 1996 to 1.15 million in 1999.

Tracey said money for the new warehouse was obtained from a number of different sources, including $281,000 from the Valley's three big cities, $100,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program and $51,948 from the state Food Bank infrastructure development fund.

Tracey especially credited El Centro City Manager Abdel Salem and Brawley City Manager Jerry Santillan for their foresight and support.

"The whole project ended up being over half a million dollars," Tracey said. "It was a big part of my life."

Meanwhile, Huerta said farmers can participate in the "donate, don't dump" program, whereby farming commodities are picked up by the Food Bank for free distribution. He said many farmers already participate, as do vegetable cooler companies.

Huerta said it is common for farmers who find the market for their produce to be so low that it is better to donate the crop to the Food Bank rather than sell at a loss or disc it under. He also said donations can be tax deductible while disposal is not.

Two of the many local agencies that get food from the Food Bank for subsequent distribution are Catholic Charities and Neighborhood House.

Catholic Charities director of operations Teri Llausas said her agency uses the Food Bank for about 10 years and uses it year-round.

"Our experience has been fabulous and awesome," she said.

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