By Stacy Wiedmaier

Lisa HoustonHunger does not discriminate, it has no boundaries. Despite what some residents may assume, no city in the Coachella Valley is immune to need.
As the Desert’s only resource of its kind, FIND Food Bank is on a mission to prevent further hunger, instead of only filling the immediate need. President and CEO Lisa Houston sees the big picture and has faced the fact that a large percentage of society could end up homeless and hungry at a moment’s notice.

Houston said when you really sit down and study the poverty demographics, people are going hungry in cities such as Indian Wells and Rancho Mirage. It’s not just families in need, but people of all ages, races and walks of life.

“This is a community problem with a community solution,” she said. “Only a small percentage of society isn’t faced with challenges in this economy. Our senior population continues to grow and they are stretching their dollar as far as it can go. They’re giving up food to pay their utility bills and rent.”

Food insecurity is defined as skipping meals, eating less, buying cheaper and less nutritious food and being forced to decide whether to buy groceries or pay other bills piling up. In a recent study, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated the number of Americans who repeatedly ran short of food increased by 800,000 in 2011 to nearly 17 million compared to 2010.

F.I.N.D. Food Bank, or Food in Need of Distribution, reaches more than 80,000 food insecure people each month in Eastern Riverside County and parts of the High Desert. They partner with a network of over 100 agencies to distribute 8 million pounds of food through sites like the Salvation Army, Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, city food pantries, senior centers and countless churches.

The Joslyn Center in Palm Desert distributes food the first and third Fridays of each month to an average of 135 people. The majority are over 55 and on government subsidies, according to Social Services Director Bob Elias. He initiated the distribution site in November 2011 to fill an obvious need.

“We saw such a need at the center when people began asking if we had food,” he said. “Our Meals on Wheels Program is for homebound seniors and many others were seeking help. It’s all in trust, we never turn anyone away.”

In 2009 when Houston took the helm of the operation, 98 percent of incoming items were donated. Now the focus has shifted and 10 percent of the food supply is purchased, while the remaining 90 percent is donated through the USDA, grocery stores or large manufacturers. This method is in stark contrast to larger food banks in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco that have large budgets to purchase a majority of their own products.

Fresh produce and foods that create a nutritionally balanced diet are the hardest items to obtain. The warehouse was previously stocked with half a million pounds of produce each year, but Houston has since made it a priority to increase that number to 2 million pounds.

“We’re trying to be proactive and look at the long term picture,” Houston said. “If we feed people unhealthy food items, then they’ll always be here and it perpetuates an endless cycle. We’re going to step up to the plate.”

According to Houston, it’s challenging to determine the amount of food to stock in the warehouse at any given time. Although it’s hard to predict when people will need extra assistance throughout the year, a few trends have emerged. Summers are extremely busy since its harvesting season and more migrant workers are in the area, children are eating lunches at home compared to their school lunchroom and those who work in the service industry experience their hours being cut back.

FIND has a total of 19 staff, including five truck drivers, six in the warehouse and two case managers who travel across the county giving over 50 presentations a year at health fairs, churches and distribution sites. Whether it’s food stamps, WIC, or utility bill assistance, 15,000 pieces of literature are disbursed to those who may be unaware they qualify for these services.

Although the lean staff is a crucial aspect to operate the large FIND facility, Houston said the system would collapse without thousands of committed volunteers. She called them the “biggest key that makes us successful.”

Over three years ago, Gwen Ford began volunteering her time at the FIND facility as the Board secretary. She has since branched out to become Board Chair and volunteer coordinator. Refusing to accept compensation for her hard work, Ford works 35-48 hours per week and wears multiple hats at the facility.

“I’m so passionate about what we do- because we’re on a mission to end hunger in this Valley,” Ford said. “People suffering from food insecurity are the same faces you see at church, the doctor’s office and on El Paseo. I find satisfaction in knowing that all we touch goes for good.”

A small $1 donation can provide seven meals, while $100 can provide 700 meals.

“There is nothing better than hearing someone say, ‘I don’t worry about food anymore,’” Houston said. “Everyone can make a difference.”

To learn more:
FIND Food Bank’s physical location is 83775 Citrus Ave. in Indio, CA.
For more information about volunteer opportunities, call 760-775-FOOD
Visit www.FindFoodBank.org to donate or locate a distribution site in your city