SACRAMENTO — The Sacramento Food Bank once was one of those standard food-distribution centers where bags of processed foods, carbohydrate-laden government commodities, day-old bread and sweets were bagged and handed to people who stood in line for hours to get it.
One day five years ago, then-new chief executive Blake Young had an epiphany: “I kept seeing people coming through the line, and they were getting fatter and fatter. I realized we were killing them.”
So Young set about remaking how food banks operate, taking advantage of Sacramento’s location in California’s rich agricultural heart.
He and his staff forged partnerships with local farmers, most of them organic, and increased the amount of fresh produce to more than half of clients’ food allotment. Then, knowing that most of those served live in food deserts without transportation to grocery stores and the region’s many farmers markets, they moved distribution sites to about two dozen neighborhood schools and churches they visit once a month.
Just as at farmers markets, the produce is laid out on tables, and clients can “shop” for fresh carrots, kale, tomatoes, spinach, cabbage, squash or whatever else is in season. Background music lends a festive air, and informational booths offer clinics on smoking cessation and health screening.
The number of families served has grown from 8,000 to 20,000 in the two years since the new program has taken off.
“My health has improved; I have more energy now,” Marlene Hill, 57, said at a recent event in the Sacramento community of Del Paso Heights. “What we don’t eat, we juice up in a blender, and that’s something I’d never done before.”
The movement toward healthier food banks, which a handful of other cities recently have adopted, pleases food and nutrition guru Michael Pollan, who has written books encouraging people to eat fresh, seasonal produce grown locally.
“For too long, America’s food banks have been giving out the worst kind of food — precisely the sort of highly processed food-like substances that contribute to obesity and chronic disease,” he said in an e-mail. “ ‘Better than nothing,’ is the best you can say about it. But in recent years, there has been an encouraging effort to improve the food in food banks, adding significant amounts of fresh produce, and focusing on the quality, not just quantity, of calories.”
A number of food banks in California, including some in San Francisco and Los Angeles, also are working to deliver more fresh produce to clients. The Sacramento bank distributes $5.5 million worth of food annually, but because of partnerships with local farmers, it spends only $175,000 for it.
Now the Sacramento Food Bank is upping the ante as Young and his crew set out to create one of the nation’s first farm-to-fork food banks by only buying from local growers, up from the current level of three-quarters. One of the biggest partners now is Capay Organic family farm in neighboring Yolo County, which donated 142,732 pounds of local produce to the food bank last year and sold it an additional 51,858 pounds.
“Sometimes the market can’t handle all of the products we’ve picked, which is why our relationship with the Sacramento Food Bank is so good for us,” said co-owner Thaddeus Barsotti, whose farm also supplies some of the region’s best restaurants. “Sometimes they buy it from us, and sometimes we give it to them. It’s a cool relationship. They contribute to year-round work for our farmworkers.”
The aim of all involved is to improve the health of clients such as Johnny Bunyard, who said he lost 100 pounds when he started eating healthily. He also quit smoking.
“Now I’m a lot more active than I was,” he said. “It’s all from the healthy food I get here, plus determination.”
Bunyard, once homebound, rides his bike to the distribution center at a local church to select fresh produce, which has broadened his palate. He also picks up recipe cards to help him prepare it.
“My friend cooked the kale for me one time and said, ‘This is that kale you didn’t think you liked.’ Well, I was wrong,” Bunyard said.
Young hopes to open new markets for local farmers as clients buy more healthy food. He believes a true farm-to-fork movement must include socioeconomic groups not inclined to shop at farmers markets or Whole Foods.
“A community is better off if farm-to-fork includes folks who struggle to put nutritional food on the table,” Young said.
Laura Poree, who lives on her Social Security income, switched to a vegan diet and enrolled in the food bank’s twice-weekly home-gardening seminars, which instruct about 30 clients a week. She lost 27 pounds and no longer needs blood-pressure medication.
In containers behind her duplex, she grows zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, beets, kale and okra, all of her favorite vegetables. The food bank provides the soil, plants and tools for growing organically. She harvests enough to share with her neighbors.
“You know the saying, ‘Teach a man to fish, and they can fish for a lifetime,’ ” she said. “I’ve really cut back on my grocery bill, and my health is better. I’m eating out of my yard, and I’m sharing with others. It’s a wonderful feeling.”