By C.J. Barbre

On a cold, gray October morning, it didn't look all that appetizing. Kellogg's Corn Flakes and Keebler Saltines filled one pallet. Another was filled with USDA orange juice and chocolate pudding. The third had outdated cottage cheese and baby watermelons.

That was the bulk of what Food Link had delivered to the Lindsay Strathmore-Coordinating Council for its bimonthly food delivery.

"We don't have much, just three pallets for us and one for Strathmore," said interim executive director Sallie McDonald. McDonald is filling in since the former executive director resigned back in June, having failed to file for two grants traditionally received for operating expenses.

In addition to the grants, the Coordinating Council relies on donations, primarily from local churches, for operating expenses and some food items that are not free from Food Link.

"I donated money for burritos and crackers, $37.50 for the burritos or $45 for both including the crackers," McDonald said holding up a bag of egg, sausage and cheese burritos. "This is what we give out, the whole bag, whether for one person or a family of eight." McDonald said the burritos, of which they get all kinds, are one of the most popular food items, certainly the most appetizing of today's delivery. But they aren't free, like the corn flakes and cottage cheese.

It is called the Lindsay-Strathmore Coordinating Council because it is equally available to Strathmore families. McDonald said they are presently serving from 350 to 400 families a month including probably 100 from Strathmore. Also Strathmore's Healthy Start picks up snacks for school children. "So if we're out of business, they're out of business too," McDonald said. She said if the Coordinating Council closes, Strathmore would have to truck on over to Visalia to the Food Link offices and warehouse off of Shirk Road to pick up their snacks.

Isidro Silva Jr., supervisor for Healthy Start in Strathmore, said they have been picking up in Lindsay for about seven years. He had a bunch of the little watermelons (about the size of softballs) and fruit drinks to take back.

McDonald suggested we take photos of her empty pantry and empty or almost empty freezers, but it is very difficult to take a picture of something that isn't there.

McDonald said the picture was a tad brighter this month, that Sacred Heart had donated $513, and the Coordinating Council received a $1,000 grant from the Bank of the Sierra for which they had applied. Another contribution was a Mission donation from St. James Episcopal Church in the amount of $27.09; and the sweetest looking little church in the wildwood, way out on Road 196, the Lindsay Community Church of the Brethren donated $200. The faithful Immanuel Baptist sent over $50 earlier in the month.

It is 52 miles (round trip) to Food Link. Supervisor Sandy Beals offered a warm reception. She said they have 12 paid staff members including three part-time workers. Agency relations person,Tara Williams and bookkeeper Becky Kennedy, joined the conversation in the conference room.

Beals said that although Food Link charges $40 to deliver food to food banks, it costs them more than $100. "But they can use FEMA money for that," she said. Beals said Food Link gets FEMA funds "to basically set up mini grants for our agencies." She said it is allocated on population numbers.

Kennedy said in fiscal 2002-03, the Coordinating Council received $3,700 in credit. As Beals had previously explained, that credit is used to order food at 15 cents per pound, regardless of the value of the product, as a handling fee. Otherwise, 80 percent of what they stock is available free (apart from the handling fee) and 20 percent carries some costs beyond the handling fee. The fiscal year runs from Nov. 1 to Oct. 31, so LSCC will be getting another credit. Kennedy said FEMA money was down 15 percent this year, and all the agencies would be getting 15 percent less. She said the Coordinating Council would be getting a $3,251 credit for fiscal 2004-2005. She said they spent less than $300 out-of-pocket for food items and ordered 100,024 pounds of food. They also ordered personal care items including shampoo, toilet paper and paper towels, not eligible for FEMA funding.

"I actually allocated $300 extra last month. A lot of agencies rely solely on us. They need to be fund-raising in their own communities," Beals said. She said that although they call it FEMA, it is a subsection under the Federal Emergency Management Agency known as EFSP (Emergency Food and Shelter Program). She said C-SET puts together a local board to apply for EFSP funds but local agencies can apply on their own. Applicants include United Way, Catholic Charities, the Red Cross - the A-list of charitable organizations.

"They can't give money if you don't apply," Beals noted. She said one of the "very important reasons for agencies to apply for their own FEMA money is they can make bulk purchases on their own." She said Food Link would provide the contacts and show them the ropes.

"The only way a pantry can be successful in any community is if the community gets behind it," Kennedy said.

"We also want them to take advantage of Food Stamps," Beals said, "which can be used anywhere." She said a lot of people are unaware that even if they are not legal, but some of their children were born here, the children are eligible for food stamps. "We have a 100 percent guarantee that the Food Stamp Program does not share information with INS and using Food Stamps doesn't jeopardize amnesty," she said.

According to the first-ever hunger questions asked in UCLA's California Health Interview Survey released in November 2002, "Statewide, four out of five people with incomes eligible for Food Stamps don't receive them. Food Stamps provide an average of $79 per person per month to purchase groceries, which can make a big difference in a family's food budget."

Regarding other sources, Beals said they were always open to getting more commodities. "We can use an unlimited supply of oranges," she said. It sounds like that would be a job for gleaners or from packing house rejects. Certainly fresh oranges would be better than processed juice.

Beals offered a tour of the warehouse. The first stop was a huge walk-in cold box where she said they kept the produce.There were more little watermelons. Beals said they got the watermelons from a food bank in Arizona that got them from Nogales, Mexico. Food Link traded carrots for the melons. There were also potatoes, pears, and mushrooms. "We could really use some oranges she reiterated.

There was a dairy box, with more outdated cottage cheese. There were huge containers of David Sunflower Seeds, hopefully not outdated because they can go rancid. There was a freezer with frozen peaches and Ruiz Mexican Frozen Foods. Beals explained that Ruiz hand-rolls all of their burritos and sets aside any not rolled properly which come in big boxes to Food Link and are repackaged into smaller bags. Most of what they get is in bulk and has to be portioned out. They have a sterile repackaging room where volunteers handle the repackaging. They also receive damaged fruit juice shipments, that have slipped around on pallets. They aren't pretty enough to sell, but are still nutritious and safe to drink. Beals said Food Link is checked regularly by the Health Department.

The next day the first people to show up at the Coordinating Council for their free food were seniors. Seniors on fixed incomes (trying to scrape by on Social Security while the price of food seems to go up daily) are more likely to suffer from malnutrition or even go hungry. That's one of the reasons the senior lunch programs are a priority for Food Link, which is why the Coordinating Council was unable to order several items. Food Link was already out of them.

McDonald said that Food Link faxes the Coordinating Council a list of available items every other Wednesday morning. On the free items under dairy there was cottage cheese, sour cream, nonfat dry milk and chocolate pudding.

"I ordered sour cream but they didn't have any. We like to get bigger cottage cheese (16 oz. rather than 8 oz.)/ We have plenty of dry milk and they sent chocolate pudding. The only thing under canned and frozen fruits on the list was frozen strawberries and Food Link was out. Under fruit or vegetable juice the only free choice was strawberry smoothies which were out. Under protein, non-meat including peanut butter, beans, eggs, pork and beans and nuts, the only choice was vegetarian beans which Food Link was out of. They didn't have any diced carrots or cantaloupes. McDonald said they did send 20 cases of cereal that wasn't on the list of available food items and the orange juice which wasn't on the list. And of course there were all of those cute little watermelons.

But, there was no bread! The staff of life not available. McDonald said bread is a big item. The best she could do was to buy some crackers. It was in fact slim pickings.

The good news is that Food Link is prepared to send the Coordinating Council 150 Christmas baskets absolutely free. "We're still taking names for Christmas baskets," McDonald said. She said next Monday, Nov. 8 is the deadline for putting in names.

Also, the Coordinating Council has a program to adopt a family, where, in addition to the Christmas baskets, an organization, business, church, or even individuals can adopt a family and provide Christmas gifts for each member of a family.

It has been the coldest, wettest October on record, but it could be a toasty, happy Christmas for the needy with more of that community involvement.

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