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Food for All delivers the crucial ’last mile’

The trucks with donated supplies from the Redwood Empire Food Bank start arriving at the Hanna Boys Center before 9 a.m. on Fridays. And even though the public distribution of the food boxes doesn’t begin until 11 a.m., about 10 volunteer drivers from Food for All are waiting for them.

The Food For All drivers – wearing black shirts with “Valle de la Luna/Comida para Todos” and “Valley of the Moon/Food for All” on the front – are ready to pick up boxes filled with fresh fruit, seasonal vegetables, staples and other goods from donations from area food businesses, as well as USDA surplus food.

The drivers load up their own vehicles – minivans, trucks, station wagons – with boxes to deliver to area residents who cannot get to the Arnold Drive distribution site, for one reason or another: No driver’s license; no car; homebound by age; isolated by coronavirus.

“When the pandemic hit and nearly everything closed down, REFB was distributing food out of two sites in the Springs, Flowery and El Verano, and among other sites in the Valley,” said Maite Iturri, principal at El Verano Elementary School. “As the need was increasing, they needed to move to a bigger space and they needed a bigger runway” for automobile pickup.

When the food bank moved its central distribution site to Hanna Boys Center, some Springs residents found themselves no longer within walking distance of food support. As Iturri recalls, “Some of the parent leaders from El Verano came to me and said, ‘Hey, we've got families who can't get food anymore because they're not driving. We need help! We have families who can't get the food; we need some support!’”

So, Iturri said, “Some of our amazing moms started their own little delivery system and started taking boxes to families who couldn't get to the food.” The result was Food for All, or Comida para Todos, an all-volunteer network of residents who distribute up to 100 boxes of food and other sundries to home-bound families and schools every week in the Springs.

Iturri and several other volunteers – Mario Castillo, D’mitra Smith, Celeste Winders and Maite’s son Cameron Iturri-Carpenter – help provide the guidance, resources, communication and fundraising, but this is by no means a top-down organization: much of the hands-on-the-wheel work is done by Ana Rios, Yazmin Gomez, Gero Bataz, Vero Rubio, Araceli de Jesus, Araceli Ruiz among others. All of them are acknowledged as co-founders of the group.

“I feel lucky to work with such amazing people,” said one of the co-founders, who didn’t want to be identified by name. “I am a volunteer. We do this as a group…. it's good work by a lot of wonderful people.”

“The Redwood Empire Food Bank does not have a home delivery program,” said Allision Goodwin, program director for the county-wide food support organization. “Instead, we encourage people to use the proxy system, so anyone else can pick up for them by providing a name and family size.”

Goodwin said REFB distributed food for 3,774 households in Sonoma Valley during the month of May - about a third, 2,253 households, from Hanna.

Some of our amazing moms started their own little delivery system and started taking boxes to families who couldn't get to the food.’ Maite Iturri

But Sonoma Valley is not the only location to have its own redelivery volunteers, those willing to drive “the last mile” from distribution site to home. West County had its own home delivery volunteers, but that program recently ended; Catholic Charities just started one in Santa Rosa.

“The last mile” is a concept in social services, transportation and many other forms of management, recognizing the short geographical distance that must be spanned to provide services to end-user customers.

One of the Food for All drivers told the Index-Tribune he used his family van to make deliveries to 12 families. “Si siempre es gratificante ver la sonrisa que se dibuja en sus rostros al recibir la ayuda,” he wrote in a bilingual email forwarded via Iturri. “Yes, it is always good to see the smile that appears on their face when they receive help.”

He added that he liked to spend at least three minutes interacting with the recipients, “so they see that they are not alone and are important to someone.”

The food boxes-to-order picked up and delivered on Fridays have been only part of the community’s need during the pandemic. Culturally-relevant food, diapers and toys, pet food and other items including personal protective equipment and cleaning products have also been needed. So FFA started delivery of these sundries to the families in need, every other weekend. Volunteers meet at El Verano school at 6 a.m. to start sorting and packing, then head out in a dozen or so trucks and vans to deliver by 10 a.m., usually on alternate Saturdays.

Over time, the work grew from the activism of a few “amazing moms” to up to 100 locations that receive deliveries, the logistics grew complex: Food for All recently posted on Facebook its seeking an Excel-literate, map-savvy volunteer to organize the deliveries into area routes. They are still looking.

Food for All is managed under the umbrella of the North Bay Organizing Project which, according to its website, “seeks to build a regional power organization rooted in working class and minority communities in the North Bay.”

“Another important aspect of this work is food justice,” said Iturri. “Even if someone doesn’t have access to such essential services, they still deserve them.”

And that’s another way to look at Food for All. It’s not just food justice, but justice, plain and simple. “It was born out of a need identified by the community,” said Iturri. “It is a collaboration of volunteers all of whom have strong ties to this community. It was developed by the folks who use the resources to improve the services, because they truly know what the needs are, as they are the front-line workers.”

Said Iturri, “We found a hole and we filled it.”

Donations to the Food for All/Comida para Todos program can be made through the North Bay Organizing Project at this link.

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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