It’s hard to believe that we live in the most productive agricultural region in the United States, but have one of the highest levels of hunger. Our region is challenged with chronically high unemployment and underemployment.
In fact, our unemployment recently hit 9.84 percent – nearly double the national average. And in some of our rural farming communities, the unemployment rate has doubled.
Hunger is a serious and daily reality for one in four adults and one in three children in the Valley. That’s one of the reasons why our neighbors on the west side recently stepped up to create the Westlands Farmers Charitable Fund, a first-of- its-kind fund in our region, for farmers to support our families with the greatest need.
For years, Valley farmers have been very generous. Through their donations, Community Food Bank has provided fresh produce to more than 70,000 families, including thousands of families who were devastated by the drought.
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Even during the most challenging economic time for our farmers, they dug into their pockets because they experienced first-hand the devastation that the drought had on jobs and the struggle of families having to decide between food and other basic necessities.
This year, Community Food Bank is celebrating its 25th anniversary. We began in 1992 with a small group of men and women who saw a need and came together to provide food for hungry people.
Today, we are a far-reaching organization that provided 40 million pounds of food to families, children, and seniors last year. We serve 280,000 people each month – that includes nearly 100,000 children.
While the numbers are staggering – and perhaps difficult for many to comprehend – there is one thing that is clear: We live in a community that cares. The giving spirit of our community is the hallmark of the Valley where we have real connections to each other and a real desire to partner together and move toward solutions.
That’s why the food bank partners with 220 agencies to deliver food to our families in need – a collective power that results in lifting others. The fact that our farmers joined forces with the Central Valley Community Foundation, the center of philanthropy in our region for more than 50 years, to create the fund is a testament to our collective power.
In addition to supporting the food bank, the fund will work to provide financial support for educational programs, including scholarships for students seeking higher education, funding for community facilities, and resources for Valley veterans’ programs – all of which our farmers have supported for years individually.
Now, the Westlands fund will harness the giving spirit of so many to make a larger impact on our families.
This giving spirit is alive and well in our community. Last year alone, nearly 18,000 people gave their time and money to the food bank. Of that, nearly 6,000 were volunteers, giving more than 52,000 hours of service. We could not have delivered 40 million pounds of food last year without this level of generosity.
The food we provide is essential for children to learn and thrive, for adults to focus on work, and for our seniors to stay healthy and active. Food is life’s basic need, but there is nothing basic about the impact it has on the overall health of our community.
Looking ahead, in order to close the meal gap in our five-county service area by 2025, we will need to distribute 80 million pounds of food annually – something that our current facility is unable to accommodate.
We are reaching out to our community to seek input as part of a feasibility and planning study in order to reach our 2025 goal of distributing 80 million pounds to meet the need in our community.
While fulfilling this significant need in our community is daunting, we are bolstered by community members who step up and answer the call. The creation of the Westlands fund helps answer our community’s call and sends a message that we are coordinated and serious about meeting the needs of the underserved and improving the quality of life for Valley families.
For decades, our farmers have supported community organizations, participated in fundraisers, worked at events, and volunteered their time. They have a history of giving and strong community support that is being honored by the Westlands fund. The fund reinforces that commitment and maximizes their investment in our community.
Andy Souza is President and CEO of Community Food Bank, dedicated to ending hunger in the Central Valley. For more information about the Westlands Farmers Charitable Fund, contact the Central Valley Community Foundation at 226-5600 or http://www.centralvalleycf.org.