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November 4, 2022

Putting the ‘Heal’ in Health Care: At the Food Bank for Monterey County, working with the agricultural community is the best way to meet the community’s nutrition needs.

By Ann Donahue

For Melissa Kendrick, the CEO and Executive Director of the Food Bank for Monterey County, her mission is two-fold. Like every food bank, the organization strives to end hunger in the community—and in Monterey County, this is a pressing issue, as it is estimated that one in three children and one in four adults are affected by food scarcity. The number of food insecure clients reached by the food bank are now quadruple what they were pre-COVID.

That, believe it or not, is the easier problem for the food bank to solve. An established infrastructure exists—a COVID-tested supply chain, at that—to get food from the fields to those who need it most. The more difficult issue is the one that requires educational outreach alongside these logistics. “It’s not just important that we feed people,” Kendrick said. “It’s also important what we feed people.”

Kendrick and her team want to transform the health of the community through good nutrition. And that, she said, is a much more complicated long-term issue than beating hunger. “We have sick care here, not health care, and we have no preventative medicine,” Kendrick said of society’s overarching attitude towards wellbeing.

That needs to change, and the best way to do so is a straightforward solution, especially in an area as agriculturally blessed as Monterey County. “Preventative medicine, first and foremost, is food,” she said. It’s time, in other words, to put the ‘heal’ in health care.

More national media attention has recently been drawn to this issue as a result of the Sept. 28 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. During that event, President Joe Biden unveiled a National Strategy that outlined actions the federal government will take to address these issues. This strategy, coming right before the behind-the-scenes wrangling begins in earnest over the next Farm Bill, represents a pivotal moment for well-intended policies to become action.

“Calling it the Farm Bill is such a misnomer because it really is the Nutrition Bill,” Kendrick said.

Making national-level politics applicable at the local level is one of the biggest challenges for those who work in the non-profit sector. It’s no secret that the most tender-hearted in society are drawn towards working at charities—but for Kendrick, good deeds can’t come at the expense of good sense. Before joining the Food Bank for Monterey County, Kendrick worked in the for-profit world in the technology sector.

“I’m very pragmatic,” she said. “In high tech, we deployed design thinking. I’m always looking at numbers—the ways that we could reduce costs and spending on anything else that would make us more productive.”

In her current role, the math is simple to solve one of the community’s biggest problems: Growers + Food Bank = Good Nutrition.

The Food Bank has deep roots in the agricultural industry of the region; current members of the Board of Directors include De Ann Davis, Western Growers’ Senior Vice President, Science; Tama Bistrian, the Chief Accounting Officer at Taylor Fresh Foods; and Board Treasurer Bill Kirmil, a veteran private label food broker. The Western Growers members that have donated to the bank include Taylor Farms, Driscoll’s, Wish Farms, and the Tanimura Family.

“We can go from being one of the most unhealthiest communities to one of the healthiest communities and we can do this because we are part of this phenomenal ag community,” Kendrick said.

The Food Bank for Monterey County is the sole source of food and fresh produce that supports 160 non-profit partners in the region. The organization operates over 240 distribution sites, which stock emergency pantries and meal programs that feed more than 10,000 people—including children, seniors, veterans, and the homeless—each week.

According to Kendrick, the key to this was to mimic the operations of the agricultural titans in the Salinas Valley, who know a thing or two about keeping produce fresh for as long as possible throughout the supply chain. The Food Bank’s facility is AIB certified and includes cold-storage capabilities and a fleet of trucks.

But besides being a vital part of the organization’s supply chain, these distribution sites are doing double duty. Not only do the employees at the locations make sure produce gets in the hands of the neediest clients, the workers also have an opportunity to interact and educate about nutrition and the availability of healthy choices.

It is the most grassroots kind of preventative care available, and it is urgently needed. Currently 50 percent of residents in Monterey County are diabetic or pre-diabetic, a diagnosis that often occurs in tandem with insufficient access to healthy food. It’s an avalanche of medical management for many of these patients; those trying to manage their conditions who are food insecure were often already struggling to find healthy options in the first place. According to the Food Bank, Monterey County ranks highest among all 58 counties in California in food insecurity and the incidence of Type 2 diabetes.

A study from the University of California, San Francisco provided the numbers and the cold hard facts that motivate Kendrick and her team. In the UCSF study, it detailed that 33 percent of hospitalizations in the county are related to complications from Type 2 diabetes; the number rises to 47 percent in the most marginalized areas of Monterey County.

The magnitude of the problem can seem daunting. But having this kind of data allows the Food Bank for Monterey County to tackle the most important step in hunger reduction and nutrition education: meeting people where they are.

Besides interactions at the distribution centers, there are two programs run by the food bank that highlight the proactive approach about nutrition that Kendrick believes is so vital.

The Food Bank’s Family Market Program runs from April through October and provides fresh produce and daily goods to the organization’s service population. The food that is distributed consists of locally-grown produce including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, celery, leeks, lettuce, Portobello mushrooms, scallions and strawberries. Families are able to self-select food they like and need from the bountiful available options; there are no pre-packaged bags. Each market serves 200-400 people and each household receives approximately 50-100 lbs. of food.

And, much like the Food Bank’s distribution center, it serves a dual purpose. The Family Market provides an ideal venue to receive information on nutrition as well as health and human services programs available to low-income Monterey County residents.

In addition, thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Kubota Tractor Corporation, the food bank is now building a community farm. Named the 5-Acre Farm, the goal is to create hands-on experiences for students in the Salinas Valley to see the connection between food, nutrition and community. Teaching children the value of healthy eating when they are young will, hopefully, create a throughline to good health that will last the rest of their lives.

“We think about where the money is going in the United States, where resources are wasted to unnecessary hospitalizations,” Kendrick said. “At the end of the day, we are the largest medicine cabinet for this community.”

If you or your company are interested in working with the Food Bank of Monterey County, please contact CEO & Executive Director Melissa Kendrick at [email protected].