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Second Harvest Food Bank celebrates its volunteers

Excerpt from Santa Cruz Sentinel 
by Tara Fatemi Walker

With over 13,000 pounds of fresh produce and dry goods arriving at its Watsonville facility every week for sorting, the proverb “Many hands make light work” is pertinent for the Second Harvest Food Bank. All the items need to be sorted and packed before they are given to community members in need.

The Food Bank works to alleviate food insecurity in Santa Cruz County and volunteers play an integral role in accomplishing this goal. “Without volunteers, Second Harvest truly couldn’t function,” says Mary Casey, chief human resources officer. “Volunteers are embedded in every aspect of food banking.”

They sort and pack food into bags and boxes for distribution and help distribute food at sites throughout the county. Some help staff Food Bank events, some help maintain the facility and others do clerical work. “We are a relatively small organization, with about 50 staff members, serving all of Santa Cruz County,” says Casey. “If you consider all the work that volunteers do, it equates to something like 10-15 additional full-time staff members — which is just amazing.”

“Nourishing the community takes a village,” says CEO Erica Padilla-Chavez. “We are fortunate that Santa Cruz County is filled with people who want to give back.”

As mentioned, positions include volunteering in the warehouse and volunteering out in the community. And 90-year-old Ray Mosier does both. A volunteer for 22 years, Mosier was named a “Hunger Fighter of the Year” at last month’s Food Bank Awards Dinner. Every Wednesday before 8 a.m., he travels from his Santa Cruz home to the Food Bank in Watsonville. He helps load a vehicle with fresh produce and other food (bread, beans, etc.), then delivers it to LiUNA Local 270 in Santa Cruz, then sorts it for weekly distribution. From 10 a.m. to noon, people visit the center — about 15-30 individuals each week — and select food for themselves and their families. It’s estimated this distribution helps feed up to 50 people each week.

When Mosier was retiring, he happened to visit the union during a Food Bank distribution. He immediately stepped up to volunteer and has done it ever since. “I enjoy the camaraderie,” he says. “Plus, it’s a need that has to be taken care of. People need help.”

He also visits the union every weekend, where he completes preparation tasks (assembling boxes, etc.) to make the Wednesday distributions go more smoothly. “It’s like what they say: If you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Every Wednesday when I wake up, I think, I get to go volunteer today!”

Ann Bornstein, 89, started volunteering six years ago. She volunteers about 75 hours each month for the Development Department, using her computer skills and more. Bornstein says that as she approaches her 90th birthday, to be able to do all of this is a real blessing.

Leticia Medina-Kohrs is officially a volunteer with the Walnut Avenue Family & Women’s Center, but her volunteer service intersects with Second Harvest’s contributions. Every week, she helps with a farmers market-style distribution at the center, where individuals enrolled in the Family Support Services program come to pick out fresh produce and non-perishable food.

“I help set up tables with food that the Food Bank delivers,” she says. “I enjoy seeing the families partake in the bounty.” She also assembles several bags of non-perishable items (like peanut butter, beans, etc., all donated by Second Harvest) and sets them aside for Family Support Services participants who can’t make it on the distribution’s day and time. Finally, she uses Second Harvest donations to fill about 10 bags for families enrolled in another program: Walnut Avenue Family & Women’s Center’s offsite Early Education Center. An Early Education Center liaison comes to the center weekly and picks up the bags to deliver to the families (which include infants, toddlers, preschoolers, or pre-K-aged kids). Medina-Kohrs loves it when she can, on occasion, save special kid-friendly treats for these.

Medina-Kohrs retired from UC Santa Cruz and started volunteering a little over a year ago. She likes giving back to the community and highly values the services and resources that Walnut Avenue Family & Women’s Center and the Food Bank provide.

All of Second Harvest’s volunteers, and their families, are thanked with an annual party hosted by the Food Bank. Last year’s included pony rides, bounce houses and a DJ. This year’s is on April 28.

“We’re shining a light on our wonderful volunteers in honor of National Volunteer Month, but it’s important to acknowledge the vital work they do all year long,” says Food Bank CEO Erica Padilla-Chavez. “We are so grateful for these hardworking individuals who help us feed our most vulnerable community members.”

Current challenges
Officials say the lines at Food Bank distributions have been getting longer.

“Many of us expected that as we came out of the pandemic, we’d see the demand for food assistance go back down,” says Casey. This hasn’t happened. “The impact of rising food costs, the rising cost of gas, etc., on top of the already incredibly challenging cost of living in this area (means) people continue to have to make difficult choices between paying for childcare, for rent, for medical bills, for insurance — and healthy food.”

As a result, the Food Bank is seeing higher numbers of participants, and the nonprofit hopes to have higher numbers of volunteers especially in the summer months.

Although the Food Bank utilizes volunteers all year long, the summer is an especially challenging time. “With students out of school and many families taking vacations, we typically see a decline in volunteerism,” says Casey. But the need is actually greater in the summer than at other times of the year. “This is when we tend to see an upswing in produce coming into our warehouses that needs to be processed and packed, as well as an upswing in need.” The need is due to factors like school lunches not being available and people being laid off from seasonal jobs.

One of the most crucial needs is for volunteers to work at the Food Bank on weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Each day, 15-20 volunteers help pack the food to be distributed that afternoon or the following day. “It’s a great energy: we have music playing, we cook food in-house for snack — it’s a lot of fun,” says Casey. Some people come every week; others drop in when they can. There is no minimum commitment. “Everyone is welcome; you can sign up for one shift, or 15!”

There are many ways to be of service, including evening or weekend shifts. “We also have opportunities for a wide range of ages: youths 13 and older can volunteer as long as we have a parental waiver on file and children ages 10-12 can volunteer alongside a parent,” says Casey. “We try hard to ensure the Food Bank is accessible to all; it’s the community’s food bank.”

Go to to learn more about volunteering. Learn more about volunteers by visiting the Food Bank’s Instagram @secondharvestsantacruz.