Tucked away on the bottom level of the Berkeley Friends Quaker Church, is a small sunny room containing shelves and fridges stocked with food. The walls are painted a warm yellow, and a few of the branches from the passion fruit vine outside have snuck their way in through the window slats, creating a feeling as though you’ve just stepped into a tiny slice of Eden. While in reality this isn’t the promised land, it is however, the source of hope and nourishment for many folks living in Berkeley who find themselves in a tough situation without enough food to eat. The Berkeley Food Pantry may seem small on the outside, but its impact is huge.
As I mentioned in my post about the Gill Tract Community Farm, I heard about the Berkeley Food Pantry (BFP) when two folks showed up to the farm to pick fresh produce for the Monday afternoon pantry offering. That evening I went home and emailed the pantry to see if I could pay them a visit. This week I had the privilege and pleasure of sitting across the tiny registration desk from the Director of the Berkeley Food Pantry (BFP), Dharma Galang. Dharma’s warm smile matched the brightness of the room.
Before we settled in, Dharma introduced me to a couple of the volunteers who were helping to set up for the afternoon pantry hours. There are only two paid employees at the BFP. All others work as volunteers, donating their time and resources to ensure the pantry stays up and running. Since 1969, the BFP has been providing emergency groceries to local community members during their time of need. It all started with just one woman from the Friends Church who began handing out cans of food from her home. The need quickly outgrew the capacity for this woman to manage out of her house, so the church opened up this space and BFP has been there ever since. Now the BFP serves packaged and fresh food 3 days a week to nearly 2,000 people a month.
While Berkeley is known as a rather affluent community, nearly 20% of the population live below the federal poverty level (that’s approximately $12,000/year for a single person, or $25,000/year for a family of 4). Many of these people are disabled, which makes accessing food all the more difficult. With California’s SNAP program, called CalFresh, low-income individuals can apply for EBT debit cards to buy food. But what happens if that money isn’t enough? The end of the month comes and you have nothing to put on your kids’ dinner plates? That’s why places like BFP are essential to the strength and wellbeing of our communities.
Sitting next to the cans of organic pinto beans and bags of rice, I asked Dharma where they get all of the food they hand out. She told me about a few sources, starting first with the Alameda County Community Food Bank. The Food Bank serves as the hub, receiving shipments of USDA supplied food. BFP, along with the other food pantries in the county, gets a portion of this supply and is allotted one free shipment from the Bank each month (although they have to pay a $100/month membership fee… the concept of “free” is so interesting in this country). On top of the USDA monthly shipment, BFP goes to the Food Bank’s grocery outlet and shops for supplies at highly subsidized prices. This isn’t your average grocery store, mind you. As Dharma explained, this grocery outlet is stocked with whatever surplus products the government has bought from large producers in order to keep the market stable (just you wait until I get to writing about our government’s subsidy and commodity programs! It’s a nightmare to say the least). Apparently there’s been a boom in chicken processing of late because Dharma said there’s a ton of whole chickens available at a cheap price. Usually chicken is a high ticket item.
Outside of the Food Bank’s shipments and grocery store, BFP gets packaged food from the Grocery Rescue Program. This program partners with local retailers to offload excess food items or items that can no longer be put out on shelves. Instead of wasting perfectly good food, these items get sent to pantries around the county. She mentioned both Target and Whole Foods participate in this program.
And last but certainly not least, BFP receives donations of produce from our AMAZING local farmers and backyard gardeners. Oh how I love our farmers!! (fireworks, balloons, all the emojis!)
As for funding, BFP gets most of it’s financial support from individual donors and grants. (Donations can be made here. Nudge, nudge.) There have been times in the past where they have had to close there doors due to lack of funding, but thankfully some generous hearts in the community helped them to re-open. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen again. (Just in case you didn’t click the first time, here‘s your chance again.) For all my Bay Area peeps, Triple Rock Brewery is hosting a fundraiser this month… you’ll be hearing from me with the details!
Towards the end of our interview, Dharma walked me around the pantry and into their back storage area which was stacked ten feet high with cans, boxes and all sorts of food items. Imagine all the hungry bellies this food will go to feed. Berkeley Food Pantry…. thank you!!
As I stepped out of the door shortly after 11am, there were already a couple of folks waiting outside for the pantry to open at 2pm. I offered a smile and a nod, receiving the same in return, and jumped on my bike to head to class.