Neighborhood project collects food for the hungry

The Berkeley Neighborhood Food Project works on a simple premise: people buy one extra non-perishable item each time they go to the store and place it in a bright green bag for bi-monthly pick up. Here, Phil Catalfo’s trunk is filled with empty and full bags. Photo: Don Prichard

By Phil Catalfo

Over the last two months, a small cadre of volunteers has fanned out across Berkeley to enroll their neighbors in an effort to support the work of the Berkeley Food Pantry and help feed hungry families in our community. Since 1969, the Pantry, a project of the Berkeley Friends Church, has been combating hunger, feeding about 700 families a month by utilizing food obtained from the Alameda County Community Food Bank, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, other sources, and donations. The new effort, dubbed the Berkeley Neighborhood Food Project (BNFP), aims to supplement the invaluable work that the Pantry, the food bank, and others have been doing—and to provide Berkeley residents with a more immediate way to help the hungry in our town.

The design of the project is brilliant in its simplicity: People are asked to buy one extra non-perishable item each time they go grocery shopping. These items are saved up in a reusable green shopping bags (emblazoned with the BNFP logo) until they are collected by project volunteers (who replace them with empty bags for the next collection). The bags are picked up at donors’ homes every two months, always on the second Saturday of an even-numbered month.

The BNFP is modeled on a similar project in Ashland, OR, which was organized over the past three years by former Berkeley resident John Javna, who moved with his family to Ashland in the mid-1990s. As a longtime friend and former colleague of his, I was recruited by John this past spring to help organize the BNFP. My wife and I traveled to Ashland in June to observe their operations, and were amazed by both the volume of food they collected—some 50,000 pounds in Ashland and Medford—and, even more impressively, the joyous spirit that animated the donors and volunteers. We returned eager to help launch the project here.

The Pantry had a half-dozen or so people who had volunteered to be “Neighborhood Coordinators,” and we met with them to tell them about the Ashland-Medford project and share our enthusiasm for what seemed possible here. And then we all set to work. One neighborhood coordinator soon had more than 50 households enrolled in his North Berkeley neighborhood; before long we had about 30 families signed up in our south-central Berkeley area. By the time our first collection day came around last weekend, we had more than 100 Berkeley households signed up.

Phil Catalfo picks up a bag full of non-perishables for the Berkeley Neighborhood Food Project and drops off an empty bag, which he will pick up in two months. Photo: Don Prichard

And so, on Saturday morning, August 11, the neighborhood coordinators visited the donor homes on their routes and brought the full bags they picked up to the Pantry, where other volunteers weighed and sorted the donated items before they were added to the Pantry’s inventory. All told, more than 960 pounds of food and other items were collected.

On Monday, Pantry director Bill Shive and I did a little calculating, and figured that this increased the Pantry’s stores by 4% this month—not bad for a first effort!

Already more households are joining this effort in anticipation of the next collection day (October 13), and I expect the project to grow rapidly in the months and seasons ahead, given the ease of participating in it and Berkeleyans’ characteristic generosity. If you’d like to become a donor, visit the BNFP web site to sign up; if you’d like to become a Neighborhood Coordinator, call (510) 525-2280, leave your name, number, and email address, and someone will get back to you shortly.

Phil Catalfo is a former Senior Editor of Yoga Journal, the former Editor of Acoustic Guitar, author of Raising Spiritual Children in a Material World (Berkley Publishing Group, 1997), and coauthor of The Whole Parenting Guide (Broadway Books, 1999). A Berkeley resident since 1975, he is a member of the Berkeley Waterfront Commission and District Coordinator for the Berkeley Neighborhood Food Project.

Berkeley food programs short on funds as demand rises (10.04.11)

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  • Charles_Siegel

    “modeled on a similar project in Ashland, OR, which was organized over
    the past three years by former Berkeley resident John Javna”

    Anyone know what John Javna is famous for?  Maybe this is a “Who in Berkeley” question.

    For a hint, see

  • Meliflaw

    I love this idea–and all it takes is remembering to buy some extra sardines or canned soup or pasta or whatever at Trader Joe’s.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I have a question about these and other, similar food drives.

    All of them strike me as well intentioned, important undertakings that nevertheless seem terribly inefficient.  

    If the goal is to get the most/best selection of food needed to run a food distribution program, why do we rely on individual shoppers’ whims and memories, with prices mediated through retail markup, and delivery attenuated through cumbersome collection schemes like bags or barrels or whatever?

    Wouldn’t it be vastly easier to collect cash and purchase the needed items at wholesale prices, delivered directly to the food bank on a shipping pallet?  

    One argument is perhaps that donors seek to educate small children about the importance of feeding the hungry by doing something tangible.  Is there more to it?  Whenever I look in those food collection barrels I see an array of oddments that would strike fear in the heart of any registered dietician.  What gives?

  • Bill N

    Whether one participates in this or not it is also important to remember the Alameda County Food bank with your   financial donations.  They do a marvelous job on relatively little funding and which also has one of the highest ratings on the “Charity Navigator” web site.

  • Marcialart

    Hi, I agree with Pragmatic Progressive and Bill N. It’s MUCH more efficient to give MONEY to local food banks. They can purchase food at enormous discounts and reach a larger number of needy families. This initiative is a great feel good project, and I almost subscribed, but giving $$ to agencies like the Alameda County Food Bank give you much better bang for your buck.

  • Phil Catalfo

    Hi, everyone. I’m the author of this article, and I want to say to those who see this project as being something people take part in *instead of* contributing to, say, the Alameda County Community Food Bank, that it’s not an either/or proposition, but a both/and kinda deal. Case in point: My wife and I have been making an annual donation to ACCFB for a good 10 years, maybe more–and we will continue to do so, even as we participate in BNFP (and encourage others to do the same). ACCFB’s work is truly worth supporting. And I’d guess that PragmaticProgressive is right, that money goes farther when contributed to outfits like ACCFB that can obtain food supplies wholesale (or even cheaper, if they’re getting it from, say, the government). But we can do both, and many of the people I’ve talked with and recruited for BNFP feel the same.

    There is something that happens when you hold a food item in your hand and know you’re going to provide it for a hungry person, that doesn’t necessarily happen when you write a check to a food-related nonprofit. When I hold a can of beans, or a package of pasta, or a pound of rice, I know what it means to eat that stuff; more to the point, I know what it means to eat it *when I’m hungry*, and I have a concrete experience of what it’s going to mean for someone who might not otherwise obtain that food to receive and consume it. And being able to be a part of that transaction (if we can call it that) is very meaningful to me. It may not solve the structural, societal problems that cause “food insecurity,” but it does deal with hunger in an immediate way. (Indeed, the food we collected last weekend was already being distributed on Monday and today.)

    Another important thing to remember about the positive impact of this project: Food banks everywhere experience a huge surge in donations in the last month or two of the year–that is, around Thanksgiving and Christmas–and a big drop after the first of the year. But hunger is a pervasive problem all year long. A project like ours can add thousands of pounds of food to the food-bank pipeline *throughout the year*. In the article I mentioned that when my wife and I went to southern Oregon in June to observe the project there, we found that 50,000 pounds of food was collected that day in just one county (a much more sparsely populated county than ours). That’s *three hundred thousand pounds of food a year*! That is, 300,000 pounds that weren’t already in the “foodstream.” I can’t think of a single food bank anywhere that would turn that down. 

    So, yes, send a financial donation to ACCFB, and make it as generous as you can. *And*, if you’re interested, if this appeals to you, and if you live in Berkeley, join us in the Berkeley Neighborhood Food Project! (I expect that in the months to come, projects will be sprouting in Oakland, El Cerrito, and other nearby communities too.)

    P.S. Another insight that PragmaticProgressive has is that this project provides an excellent teaching experience for children. Many of the households in my neighborhood that have signed up so far include young children, and the parents I’ve spoken with are really grateful for the opportunity this offers to do something positive and constructive with their children, to teach them about hunger (and about where food comes from and goes to), and more. And kids can really relish the act of selecting items for “the green bag,” stocking the bag upon returning home from grocery shopping, putting the bag out for collection day, etc. It’s something the whole family can enjoy doing together.

  •  For some of us, perhaps this new endeavor, The Berkeley Neighborhood Food Project, might motivate us to at least do something. It might be a something that feels small, that might not be the most efficient use of resources, but a something that feels concrete and direct. Thank you so much for this article. Thank you for starting this project. And thank you for the discussion. 

    I am reminded of a quote that has been attributed, (I believe), to Gandhi: “Whatever you do may seem insignificant, but it is most important that you do it”.

  • Thanks for your question, ProgProg… I want to second Phil’s earlier comment by saying yes, PLEASE DO support the Food Pantry and the Alameda County Community Food Bank with your donations! It is true that this is the most efficient way of enabling bulk purchases of food. The ACCFB is the Food Pantry’s main supplier, and the food we purchase from them is the lowest per-unit cost of all our vendors.

    But then to add to what Phil says about the positive effects for families and community that the Neighborhood Food Project offers: one future opportunity that the project presents is to target specific items that we are not always able to get from vendors. Peanut butter and cereal, for example, always seem to be in short supply, and not always available from the ACCFB. So that’s another benefit in addition to those Phil lays out.

    Brian Young
    Pastor, Berkeley Friends Church

  • Extra cool!!!

  • Salvatore Mucaria

    Grande Phil Sono fiero e onorato di ritenermi un tuo amico,quello che state facendo è molto meritevole, anche io nel lontano 1997 mi sono recato nella martoriata dalla guerra Mostar, per portare alla popolazione affamata, generi di prima necessità.Per mè è stata una esperienza indimenticabile.