One Year Later
Stepping back to look forward.
It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year since a small group of Berkeley Food Network staff, board members, and volunteers met in my office at the BFN warehouse to discuss how we would continue to serve our clients safely during the expected COVID-19 shelter-in-place order. Little did we know that, a year later, this would be the meeting that changed BFN.
In the ensuing year BFN fed three times more people than the year before, as the pandemic and the racial disparities it brought into the bright light created many more hungry people in Berkeley. In that process of swiftly ramping up to meet the need, we proved our model—that we have the ability to make sure no one in Berkeley goes to bed hungry.
We’ve been able to say “Yes!” to everyone who’s come to us for food, asked us to increase the number of people we serve through our partnerships around the city, or asked to partner with us. We now reliably serve 5,000 people a week through our on-site pantry and 33 mobile distributions, and prepare as many as 1,000 meals a week in our Hub Kitchen.
Now that we’ve fallen into the rhythm of our new workload, we’ve been able to step back a bit to think about the organization we want to be. We are no longer a scrappy startup, but on the road to becoming a more sophisticated organization. We are more deliberative in our day-to-day work, which allows us to stretch every dollar further and feed more people. At the same time we can also lift our eyes toward the horizon and think strategically about what we want the long-term impact of our work to be.
For example, now we can not only feed people, but feed them better. We have the resources to increase our focus on not just quantity of food, but also quality. We have challenged ourselves to source and provide the healthiest, hardest-to-afford food, like fresh produce and high-quality proteins, to as many people in Berkeley who need it. Hand in hand with that goes our vow to use our buying power to support our local economy and the folks who grow and produce our food. As an example, we have begun to reach more seniors in our community and offer them the kinds of healthy foods that meet their nutritional needs, such as fresh produce. And we are sourcing much of that produce from local farmers.
We wouldn’t be at this new level of growth and sophistication if it wasn’t for you. Because of your support, BFN has been able to step up in this incredible time of need and be better positioned going forward, with the know-how and resources to become a more powerful force for ending food insecurity in our community.
Yours in partnership to end hunger in our community,
Sara Webber, Executive Director
March 18, 2021
BFN employees Parris Williams and Erika Larson
At Berkeley Food Network, we value our employees not only for their expertise and skills, but also for their empathy and compassion. Two integral members of our team who exemplify those values are Warehouse Operations Manager Parris Williams and Executive Assistant Erika Larson.
Parris grew up in Richmond in a single parent household where she experienced food insecurity. As a child, her family survived with the help of others and her mother’s hard work and resourcefulness. When they were able to venture to grocery stores, food stamps in hand, it was an experience filled with excitement, but also shame and anxiety. Her family often visited food banks, churches, and community events that included food. As she grew older, Parris realized her family structure and struggle with food insecurity was not unique to her household. She began to ask, “Why?”, which led her to get a degree in Sociology. Parris brings her passion for combating socio-economic inequalities to the Berkeley Food Network.
Erika was born in San Francisco and grew up in Petaluma. After attending college in Philadelphia and living abroad in London and Hong Kong, she returned to the Bay Area in 2006, where she has since worked in the fields of single payer healthcare advocacy, labor organizing, marriage equality, and criminal justice. She has lived in Berkeley for the past ten years, where she loves indulging in the natural beauty of the area as well as the rich diversity of culinary and artistic traditions available to residents and visitors alike. In her free time she enjoys crafting and creative fix-it projects around the house, when she’s not being a couch potato with her dogs.
What brought you to BFN?
Erika: The through-line in my career has always been that I do jobs that I desperately wish didn’t exist to begin with. I always want to work for an organization that I hope one day isn’t needed. BFN fits that criteria for me. What about you?
Parris: Similar reasons. I was at a job for the past 13 years, and I knew I wanted a change of pace and culture. I wanted to work in the nonprofit space. Also, the mission of this organization, providing food for everyone and doing it in a dignified way, really appealed to me.
What is your role here?
Parris: I’m the Warehouse Operations Manager. I do a little bit of everything. I’m focusing on developing our inventory control system. I also do some deliveries and some warehouse safety, as safety captain.
Erika: I’m the Executive Assistant. It’s a new position that was created to free up our Executive Director to focus on ‘big picture’ things. I do a lot of the smaller day-to-day tasks that are necessary to running a business and a nonprofit as well as some of the bigger administrative tasks such as HR and accounting.
How will your role help BFN professionalize its operations and procedures?
Erika: My position is a natural progression to relieve the Board and the ED of those more administrative tasks. Now that BFN has grown so quickly and seen such success in our operations and in our model, the Board can stop working at getting us up and running and start working on expanding our reach and the amount of good we can do.
Parris: For me, a lot of the focus is getting our inventory system up and running, professionalized, and getting our billing system into place. Establishing a solid inventory system is going to help get us to that next level.
What do you like best about working here?
Parris: There are so many things! I’m alway excited when I come in each day. I like the culture and the atmosphere. It’s welcoming and very collaborative. I feel supported. If there are issues with something, we all work together to figure it out.
Erika: For me, it’s the fact that everybody here really lives their values. I’ve definitely been in places that have a good forward-facing public face, but they don’t treat their staff or their volunteers or their friends very well—this is definitely not that type of environment. The emphasis is on respect and dignity for our clients, but also for our staff and our volunteers. That makes an enormous difference; I really think it contributes towards BFN’s success as a model.
BFN Reaches More Food Insecure Seniors
Seniors in our community deserve to live
healthy, active lives.
“I moved in here [senior living apartment in Berkeley] in January. I didn’t realize I would get food too! To get food delivered to my door every week saves me so much time and money. You’re doing a great service.”
“When I’m homeless, living in my van because the cost of housing is so expensive, it’s hard. All I can do is be really super grateful for the help, because I’ve been eating really lousy food; not well at all. I was not eating vegetables prior to coming here and now I’m able to steam vegetables.”
Larry and David are just two of the 3,000 or so seniors who need Berkeley Food Network’s support to make it through the month. They both are recipients of BFN’s mobile pantry delivery service, that brings food to seniors where they live.
Unfortunately, the number of seniors who go hungry has been increasing, in California and Berkeley. Nearly 40 percent of low-income Californians over the age of 60 are food insecure—a 21 percent increase over the last 15 years. Berkeley too has a significant senior population that experiences hunger and lack of access to healthy food. In 2020, BFN distributed food to more than 1,200 seniors twice a month—and our goal is to reach many more, up to 3,000 seniors by mid 2023.
“Many seniors, especially those who are food insecure, have a hard time sourcing healthy food on a consistent basis,” says BFN Executive Director Sara Webber. “Our senior program aims to change that and ensure that all seniors living in Berkeley and Albany are well nourished and able to live healthy, active lives.”
The ability to reach seniors near their residence is essential. Many food-insecure seniors have a hard time sourcing healthy food on a regular basis, in part due to travel and health constraints. BFN’s senior program aims to expand our home delivery to homebound seniors and to increase the number of mobile pantry distributions serving senior housing and senior programs.
Serving seniors has been at the core of BFN’s work from the start. Our first mobile pantry program distributed food at the South Berkeley Senior Center (SBSC), serving both North and South Berkeley Senior Center participants. In 2020, seniors comprised 18.9 percent of BFN’s clientele, served across 12 different distribution sites, in partnership with eight senior serving organizations. For example, BFN is partnering not only with the City of Berkeley, but also with local faith communities and senior housing programs to extend our reach.
BFN’s ambitious goal of distributing healthy groceries and frozen meals to 3,000 seniors by 2023 has been made possible by a generous grant from the Crescent, Porter, Hale Foundation and numerous donations from the Berkeley community. This funding will allow BFN to triple the number of seniors we serve as well as support our food recovery program as we create meals from recovered food for seniors. We partner with the City of Berkeley’s Aging Services Division to provide a weekly nutritious breakfast for their Senior Center clients and we provide frozen meals as part of our twice monthly grocery distributions at our housing and senior program mobile pantry locations.
“Our increased focus on serving seniors who experience hunger will have a ripple effect in our community,” says Webber. “The inability to find sufficient nutritious, affordable food is tied to a greater prevalence of chronic disease, hospitalizations, and mental health challenges, along with increased health care spending. We want the seniors living in our community to live healthy active lives. They deserve that.”
Every other Tuesday, Berkeley High student Clio Monrad comes to the Berkeley Food Network, loads up her family’s car with boxes of healthy and tasty food, and makes her rounds, dropping off boxes of groceries for home-bound seniors throughout the city.
Clio began volunteering with BFN when the pandemic forced her classes online and abruptly ended her extracurricular activities. “I have online school now, and that seems to be my only responsibility these days,” says the 17-year old senior. “I thought this would be a good opportunity to do something in the community and give back to people right now.”
Clio, who is sometimes joined in the drop offs by her mother Holly or brother Dez, says she finds her brief exchange with the seniors gratifying. “It’s nice to get to talk to a new person every day,” she says. “I like to do my little texting thing with the clients. It feels like a game sometimes—I have to get my timing right as they are expecting me. I love those little connections.” One of her favorite clients even texts with Clio outside her delivery days. “Sometimes I’ll get a text from one of the women I deliver to. She’s really old, and she loves her emojis. Heart eyes, heart eyes, heart eyes!”
Clio is one of BFN’s hundreds of volunteers, ranging from age 14 to 85. When the pandemic hit and the number of food insecure people increased, the Berkeley community stepped up and Berkeley Food Network’s volunteer base increased significantly. Not only do the volunteers relish giving back to the community, many say they have found volunteering fun—a safe way to get out of the house and be around other people (wearing masks and staying at least six feet apart of course!). “Seeing so many young people come in to volunteer makes me optimistic about the future,” says Tami Stewart, BFN’s Volunteer Coordinator. “If they are prioritizing community service at this age and taking these insights forward—I think we are in good hands.”