In a multiagency partnership, several Santa Clarita Valley nonprofits were able to receive enough food donations to allow them to serve thousands of local families in need.
As food banks across the country were being inundated by families in need of food due to the tremendous loss of jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic, farmers were simultaneously dumping milk and letting crops rot, with nowhere for that product to go as restaurants shuttered.
Among those dramatically impacted was Vesta Foodservice, a local foodservice distributor that supplies food in bulk to the restaurant industry.
“When the restaurants shut down, we had nowhere to go with our inventory … so almost overnight, we lost 85% of our business,” said Jin Ju Wilder, Vesta Foodservice director of marketing and business development.
Vesta ended up donating millions of pounds of product to food banks through Chefs to End Hunger, the company’s nonprofit that takes excess food from restaurants and redistributes it to feeding agencies.
In an effort to help break down the barriers between farmers and families in need, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Farmers to Families Food Box program, which allowed them to award contracts to organizations, like Vesta, to purchase and distribute agricultural products to those in need.
“We would pay the growers, so they get a little bit of relief, we build the boxes and we deliver them to food banks, and then we get reimbursed by USDA,” Wilder added. “So, we were really excited because we already had a distribution network in place through Chefs to End Hunger.”
A great opportunity
When Joan Aschoff, Child & Family Center president and CEO, heard of the program from Jesse Smith, California Institute of the Arts associate vice president and chief operating officer, she knew it was a great opportunity for her clients, many of whom were already at poverty level or below before the pandemic.
“One of the things that we had discovered as we’ve been going through this pandemic is that with the loss of employment, the need for basic services had just skyrocketed,” Aschoff said.
Once she’d spoken to Wilder and realized the quantity of food typically delivered, she didn’t want to lose the opportunity, so she put the word out to her community partners, quickly getting a response from Bradley Grose, founder of Santa Clarita Grocery.
“We were in dire need because our numbers have accelerated,” Grose said. “Just in the month of January, we served 161 families, so our original pre-COVID supply lines met 160 to 200. Now, we’re at 700 with a forecast of July and August to probably be in the 800 to 1,000 families.”
Now, Santa Clarita Grocery has a contract to receive weekly deliveries from Vesta that was recently extended until August. Each delivery consists of what Aschoff considers a “wall of boxes,” measuring out to five pallets, totaling 250 boxes of fresh food, such as vegetables, fruit and dairy.
Being part of the USDA box program allowed Vesta to hire back a number of furloughed employees, and also benefited The Child & Family Center, staff and students from CalArts, and other local nonprofits, who can all now send their clients to Santa Clarita Grocery.
“It’s turned into a great partnership and a way for all that fresh food to get into Santa Clarita that we would have never had an opportunity for,” Aschoff said. “So it was just a wonderful thing to be a part of and to just see it all connect.”
“We have a lot of alum and students who live nearby, so taking advantage of these services that are provided is really important to us,” Smith added. “We’re just really excited to be able to be involved with so many of the great nonprofits in this community, so we’re happy to help where we can.”
The perfect time
For Santa Clarita Grocery, it came at the perfect time.
“It’s just exactly what we needed to meet today’s demand,” Grose said. “We are definitely set up to get our community through the summer months, and we just couldn’t be more excited about this whole entire program.”
Both Grose and Aschoff agree that it created the perfect partnership, allowing each other’s organizations the chance to gain a resource.
“It’s brought so many groups together that, pre-COVID, due to the firewalls and rules and regulations, we could never team up with,” Grose said. “And now, we’re at a place where those walls have been diminished because what has come front and center is really taking care of the needs of our community.”