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By Helen Horvath


July 27, 2020 (San Diego) -- In an interview with Jim Floros, president and CEO of the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank, ECM discusses the push to end hunger in San Diego during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Next to water and air to breath, food is one of the most elemental basic survival needs for everyone in our communities. It is no longer only the homeless who find themselves seeking assistance with daily food needs. When looking around the San Diego region the picture of a Food Bank recipient is the picture of your neighbors, co-workers, and individuals who you interact with daily.  People in our communities have been furloughed, terminated, lost businesses, and forced to close businesses as a result of the national and state shut down of the economy due to COVID-19.


In unprecedented numbers, people have been placed in a position of seeking assistance to meet basic needs. According to Floros, roughly 22% of food distribution is in East County, with 9.5 million pounds of food distributed through 100 non-profit partners.  Supervisor Cox, District 1, had more than 10.5M pounds of food distributed through 130 agencies in the past year.  The Food Bank closely tracks how many people by pounds of food distributed.  The Food Bank meets with legislators and provides food distribution statistics by district and agencies involved. In San Diego County, the Food Bank has distributed 42 million of food as of late June 2020.  This is 43% more food distributed than in previous years.


The Food Bank, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, purchases food in bulk. When the community donates to the Food Bank, every $1 contribution permits a family to create five meals. Contributions can be made to a partner organization and ear marked for the Food Bank or contributions can be made directly on the Food Bank’s website.


As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the operations to feed the hungry intensify as basic survival needs go unmet. The goal to end hunger in our communities is real. Yet, the question of how we get to the point of resolving hunger in our communities is a complex issue that takes multiple partners to create solutions. These efforts are designed to create solutions to fill in the basic needs gap due to COVID-19’s economic impact to our nation and community members. Let’s face the fact – hunger in the San Diego region does not stop when the sun goes down.  


During the COVID-19 pandemic, Floros has worked 14-15 hour days with little time off, in order to create solutions with his Food Bank key leadership and team.  The goal of ending hunger in our communities is his passion and life’s work. Floros has been president and CEO of the San Diego Food bank since January 2013. He is the Chairman of the California Association of Food Banks, a membership organization of California’s 41 Food Banks in various counties. Through his leadership, he has created positive change within the San Diego County communities. His mantra is “do the right thing.”


Doing the right thing for the Food Bank is important to sustain their organizational culture. There are 75 employees with over 800 years of combined food bank experience at the San Diego and North County Food Bank locations. The Food Bank is seeking employees for both volunteer and paid positions.  Sample positions include an entry level communication position and the need for industrial/technical personnel to work on the repack program.  


Obtaining a hand up, not a handout


There is no shame in seeking assistance when community members are backed into a financial corner as a result of an economic downturn.  Food insecurities have hit the middle and lower income families in our communities. People can own in a $500,000 home, yet not have enough to eat as a result of layoffs and terminations during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The federal government has designed a safety social net that is comprised of approximately 83 programs and services across a complex and vast network.  One of the program groups involved is the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) to aid the low income community.  Some of these programs have expanded to provide services to those in need.  The USDA programs and services include the San Diego Food Bank as a key recipient. The San Diego Food Bank is a member of the 2-1-1 Community Information Exchange services that permit the Food Bank to receive direct requests for assistance.  Through this partnership with 2-1-1 San Diego, the Food Bank is able to make referrals through 2-1-1 San Diego for homeless services, veterans, and a variety of community needs to the member partners.  This creates a one stop experience for the community members seeking services.  The Food Bank’s role of feeding the hungry does not change during the referral process that is managed by 2-1-1 San Diego. 

Barriers to successful outcomes


During the interview, ECM asked Floros, “How can we help people in our communities resolve food insecurities?”  


He stated that he became a part of the “hunger community 7.5 years ago.  Prevention in the past was and continues to be a huge part of the issue (to resolve hunger).  There were lots of silos (barriers) in all areas of the hunger community. Organizations did not communicate with each other. The frustration was that to end hunger, as a community, we needed to build a better mouse trap.  In the past the hunger community was coming up with bandaid programs and not examining the root cause of hunger in our communities.”


There are many root causes of hunger in our communities, he says, adding,“The issue is not just about food and  nutrition.”  Hunger in our communities also entails looking at the root causes of hunger that are often not addressed when people are seeking services, creating additional barriers.


Changes in operations since the COVID-19 pandemic began


The San Diego Food Bank has faced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic period.  Beyond the routine services, Floros states, “The service population has doubled.  The challenge has been to actually obtain food as a result of problems in the supply chain.” The food Bank may order a large amount of food and it may not show up due to logistics and supply chain issues, so it does not get delivered to the warehouse in a timely manner, for example. 


“To resolve the issue we found ways to further improve our good stockpile of food in our organization,” Floros says. “The delays were concerning, yet, the Food Bank was still able to roll out food to the community.  The ship was able to pivot due to organizational structure within the Food Bank and our relationship to our 500 non-profit partners.”


Floros states,”Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the San Diego Food Bank was providing food for approximately 350,000 people per month.” After the pandemic took hold in San Diego with business shutdowns and unemployment of 15% or more the number of people seeking food assistance increased by 43%; from 350,000 to 600,000 clients, he notes. 


“This is a direct result of so many people in the service industry (and other businesses) that basically were laid off and small businesses began to fail.  50% of all small businesses are expected to fail.  Within three days after the COVID-19 directives, we were able to address the food issues that resulted from the new directives.  We pushed out about 700,000 pounds of food in a very short period of time to help reduce long lines. There were mass distributions for media events.  The Food Bank committed to four media events.  Only the first 1,000 cars were permitted to enter the locations due to logistics and traffic involved.  In Mission Valley, 3,000 people showed up causing 2,000-3,000 people to be turned away.  This also occurred at Del Mar, Grossmont, and Southwestern College. This inability to provide food for all lacked client dignity as people were still turned away as the food ran out.  Even after the food ran out, many still stayed and waited. Hoping for help.”


Floros continued, “These media events served their purpose. As we moved into phase 3 of our COVID-19 plan, we have improved upon our distribution chain by creation of Super Food Pantries in the San Diego region.  Coupled with super pantry programs, we have increased mobile pantry capabilities to include services to the East County Back Country with three mobile pantries.”  If there are additional needs in the rural communities, the Food Bank will schedule services to meet the unmet needs, he adds.  


The Super Pantries are food distribution hubs located throughout San Diego County that offer contactless “drive thru” and “walk up” food distribution services. Floros said that the Food Bank “is going back to our roots in the neighborhoods. Through a contracting process, the Food Bank selected 30 or more existing non-profits to create the super pantries non-profit sites throughout the County.  Food will be distributed three times per week for three hours a day until December 31, 2020.  Each site was provided a $20,000 capacity grant to meet additional needs of refrigeration units, pallet jacks and other items needed” (to increase food distribution  capacity in the community).  


Key programs and services have been affected by COVID19.  According to Floros, “The free and reduced lunch program for low income children was impacted as children were not getting fed due to school closures.”  The Food Bank “set up 47 school sites weekly to ensure that children were fed.”  


Additionally, in 2017 the San Diego Food Bank received $2.5 million in Legislature-approved funding for the development of the Diaper Bank to provide $100 in diapers per month to assist low income families required to provide diapers to childcare centers while working. The funding is expected to last through 2021.  Diapers can be picked up at San Diego Food Bank’s monthly distribution locations.  The San Diego Food Bank is working to continue the program with the public’s infusion of cash donations as part of the public-private partnerships specifically for the Diaper Bank.


The quandary in the non-profit food distribution industry “is that the USDA mandates for its emergency food assistance program that the Food Bank cannot ask for identification.  The  (community member) cannot be asked anything other than verification that they are eligible (based upon income),” says Floros.  Over two-thirds (66%) of food distribution does not require identification nor proof of income, creating an “honor system” for Emergency Food Assistance Program services income guidelines. “Anyone that comes by gets food,” Floros makes clear.


How to become a Food Bank Partner


The San Diego Food Bank is built upon a goal of providing excellent services to the community. Through the leadership of Floros, the organization is continually developing fundraising partnerships, relationships with the media, and educating the community about programs and services.  Yet there is more work to be done.  


The Food Bank seeks to build its food distribution partnerships from 500 community partners to 600 community partners.  This will take key interested community 501(c)(3) community organizations that have for over one year had a community feeding program. The non-profit agency is vetted by the Food Bank once the application is received. After the vetting period, the Food Bank will complete an initial site visit and then ongoing monitoring visits. There are strict rules that must be adhered to that include not refusing clients services based upon religion, as well as reporting requirements for number of pounds of food distributed to measure outcome and community participation with the non-profit’s programs. 


Ending Hunger in Our Communities


It takes money to end hunger in our communities. Government programs are often not enough; to create change there is a need to sustain those nonprofits willing to take on the hunger industry’s silos and continue to be a voice and partner for local and national changes in the hunger programs and services arena.  Nonprofits continually seek financial contributions and volunteers to help continue the mission of the non-profit.  The Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank is no different. The organization raises money and then spends the money on the community. This is a never-ending cycle of contributions and expenditures.  It will take community members to keep the organization financially viable through fundraising partnerships, individual donations, and capacity building.    


How to help


To learn more about the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank programs and  services to the community, or to get involved through donating, volunteering or holding a virtual food drive,  you can visit the organization’s website.


How to find food


If you are hungry, or know someone who is, find a list of food distribution sites in your community at https://sandiegofoodbank.org/GetHelp/.


Dr. Helen Horvath is a psychologist, organizational development consultant and published author on a variety of psychology and business topics. As a speaker, she has presented at the American Psychological Association Annual Conference, Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and other key professional organizations.  She is a former marriage and family therapist and published a relationship book entitled “Put a Period to IT: When Divorce is the Option.” 

East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the Facebook Journalism Project for its COVID-19 Relief Fund grant to support our local news reporting including impacts on vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more: #FacebookJournalismProject and https://www.facebook.com/fbjournalismproject/.

You can donate to support our local journalism efforts during the pandemic at https://www.EastCountyMedia.org/donate.


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