Pat Alamao and other leaders of Senior Gleaners describe the organization’s financial troubles this way: “We were living in a castle on a duplex budget.”
They approached Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services early last year with the idea of partnering up and creating a more sustainable model for distributing food to low-income people. After a great deal of due diligence, food bank CEO Blake Young and his board agreed to take on the risk of operating Gleaner’s “castle” – a 100,000-square-foot facility sitting on 12.5 acres in Sacramento.
The California attorney general approved the two nonprofits’ merger on Dec. 14, and it went into effect the next day.
Up until a year ago, three competing food banks – California Emergency Foodlink, Sacramento Food Bank and Senior Gleaners – were supplying 250 food pantries and closets around Sacramento County, Young said. Typically, regions of similar size have one agency appealing for donations, sourcing food, trucking the goods, storing them and distributing them.
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As of Dec. 15, Sacramento has only one as well. Foodlink ended its local operations a year ago, Young said.
Alamao, a retiree who has volunteered with Gleaners for five years, told me she is “tickled” by the merger because the agency probably would have dissolved and left the charities it served without food. However, Alamao acknowledged, not all of Gleaners’ volunteers were happy with the ownership change.
Gleaners, she said, was a membership organization. Volunteers paid a nominal fee for membership, and if they were certified as low-income, they could receive food donations from the Gleaners pantry. At Sacramento Food Bank, however, volunteers are ineligible to receive food for at least one year from their last date of service.
Young explained: “We simply can’t provide food to volunteers. It’s against Feeding America policy and actually, it puts us at risk of losing our groceries. I would say, about 50 percent of the groceries that come to us are tied to the Feeding America program.”
Curtis Park resident Suzanne Jumper heard about the change in Gleaners policy and called The Sacramento Bee about the merger. She said: “I am concerned about the elderly people who had a purpose and were able to do something good for others while also earning something for themselves. Some low-income seniors aren’t comfortable taking handouts.”
Young said he is empathetic. Back when he started working at Sacramento Food Bank, its founder, Father Daniel Madigan, had him work with senior citizens at Gleaners for two months to become immersed in the mission of food banks.
“The World War II generation went through the Depression, and they don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of getting freebies,” he said. “They want to provide a service in exchange for food. I get that, but we’re not going to be flexible on that policy because it puts us at risk of losing food.”
Indeed, Gleaners made the choice to not contract with Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, because of the policy, and that choice affected the availability of goods, Alamao said.
“The donations were going way down because we lost so many stores” affiliated with Feeding America, she said. “We would run out of food.”
Frank Harding directs the Heart for the Hungry food closet in North Natomas with his wife, Brenda Monson. After Foodlink stopped supplying local food pantries a year ago, he said, his account was transferred to Senior Gleaners. He said he went to the nonprofit’s facility at 1951 Bell Ave. in North Sacramento for about six months before giving up.
“It got to the point where it wasn’t worth our time to go by there,” he said. “The quantity and quality of food and the process they used for distributing didn’t seem geared toward the end user.”
Instead, Harding and Monson drove down to the Sacramento Food Bank’s distribution center on Third Avenue in Oak Park. They were able to get fruits, vegetables, canned goods and other nutritious items. Harding said he noticed a “night-and-day” difference in the cleanliness and inventory at the former Gleaners distribution center on Bell Avenue after the food bank staff took over. Those comments echo what Alamao said she’s heard from other food pantry coordinators since the merger.
Young noted that roughly 95 percent of the work at the Sacramento Food Bank is performed by volunteers. While Gleaners had 300 members, only 100 were active, he said. The food bank had 5,000 volunteers donate their time last year.
Although the food bank has taken risks with this merger, including SMUD bills at the Bell Avenue center that can run as high as $7,000 a month, Young said the new facility has more room for storage and refrigeration than the Oak Park facility.
He moved food distribution to the Bell Avenue warehouse in order to do some remodeling at the Oak Park distribution center. The renovation will expand shipping, receiving, cold storage and dock space, Young said, plus it will improve the building’s work flow.