Every day, the Alameda County Community Food Bank delivers thousands of pounds of produce, dairy products, eggs, bread and other fresh foods to soup kitchens, food pantries, senior centers and other nonprofits working to end hunger in Alameda County. It’s the largest distributor of food in the East Bay, but it isn’t able to reach as many food-insecure people in Berkeley as it could, or should, because of a logistics problem — it can only deliver to those who’ll take a full box truck of goods.
The Berkeley Food Network (BFN) hopes to fix that problem.
The BFN was established in 2016 as a way for organizations that redistribute food in Berkeley to coordinate efforts and bridge gaps between themselves. The goal of the BFN is to be a hub of sorts, performing food traffic control for a network of several independent individuals and groups.
“We are a network. We’re a membership organization,” said Sara Webber, co-founder and executive director of the BFN. Webber is also Chair of the Agencies Network at the Alameda County Community Food Bank. “We actually have nearly 40 members and close to 20 of them are direct providers of food.”
The BFN’s mission is to function as the telephone and the operator for its members. “As a network we can actually fill gaps by working together and get a better sense of who needs food,” said Webber.
That might mean shuffling a surplus of food from one organization with an overabundance of donated goods to another in need of more supplies. Or it could mean warehousing food for a group that lacks storage space. Or, for Berkeley agencies that aren’t large enough to receive entire truck full of donations from groups like the Alameda County Community Food Bank, it could mean making small-sized deliveries. Webber said this would particularly be beneficial to centers and kitchens that don’t have the staff or storage space for large deliveries. An added advantage for smaller, more frequent deliveries is an uptick in fresher and healthier food options for member organizations.
“We’ll be doing a lot for the city of Berkeley… We provide food for the housed and the homeless. By having access to free food, families who are marginally housed can keep their house,” said Webber, who believes that free food can act as a form of edible rent subsidy. She also expects that recipients will be healthier owing to the quality of donated goods.
The BFN has also been in talks with city officials for possible participation in Berkeley’s Pathways Project, an initiative that hopes to house and serve the city’s 1,000 citizens who are experiencing homelessness. Webber said that the BFN is “prepared to provide a variety of foods — both prepared and groceries — for the Pathways Project” that it would source from the Alameda County Community Food Bank, as well as other local donors, and even local gleaners. (Gleaners pick unwanted fruit and take it to shelters and food kitchens where it is appreciated.) But plans to assist with the Pathways Projects are still developing.
One of the more pressing issues that the BFN is currently facing is the issue of space. It currently lacks a headquarters; for now, its home base is wherever its board members happen to be.
“We’re trying to be really lean and nimble and to make things happen without having a central space because we want to get momentum going and have a really engaged membership,” said Webber. That said, a central location would be of invaluable benefit for the BFN.
“If we have a food hub we can do more food recovery work and that will help Berkeley reach its goals [of food waste reduction],” she said. Webber sees the network as an invaluable tool for helping Berkeley reach its goal of zero waste, as well as a way to comply with Senate Bill 1383, an ordinance setting stricter limits on the amount of methane and other short-lived climate pollutants produced in California.
The BFN had initially looked at property at 1001 University Ave., the former location of Premier Cru. Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilwoman Sophie Hahn had recommended the space to Webber as one the BFN could potentially use during the property’s transition from warehouse to housing. In early November, the BFN submitted a proposal to the city to lease the space but were advised in January to shift its application to a smaller warehouse space located in the back of 1011 University, a proposal more likely to be accepted by city staff and council.
“We knew from the beginning that the city was going to purchase it for affordable housing, and that it was going to be a teardown and that it would take five to eight years for that to happen,” said Webber. “So we proposed to temporarily be in that place.”
Webber hopes that once a hub gets up and going, the BFN can also create “value-added foods,” turning donated produce into goods like prepared soups and jams. And, eventually, she hopes for a fleet of delivery vans. But for now, the immediate goal is to get refrigerators, freezers, shelving and above all, space in which to operate.
“Just get the really basic thing running and then add in as we need to,” said Webber. “We have lots of steps we need to take.”
Webber would welcome the temporary tenancy as a way to establish “proof of concept” for the BFN. The warehouse space would operate as a testing ground, as a way to prove the network’s value, and would also work as a stage for fundraising to eventually secure a more permanent location.
“Our hub would be a place where food would be sorted, weighed for tax purposes and member agencies could come to pick it up as needed,” said Webber.
Having a dedicated warehouse space would give BFN member organizations like Daily Bread — a volunteer-run food redistribution service based off University Avenue in downtown Berkeley — the ability to pick up food to bring to Strawberry Creek Lodge, a senior living complex in West Berkeley, where it would be used to create prepared meals for residents.
“Our mission is to redirect excess food from local vendors to places in the community that could make good use of the food,” said Patrice Ignelzi, a coordinator at Daily Bread and BFN board member.
Daily Bread functions as something of a relay service, connecting food from point A to point B. Ignelzi would love to have a food hub where she could direct local vendors to drop off their excess and where she could then direct crews of volunteers to relay it to a fellow BFN member organization, say Strawberry Creek Lodge.
Currently, the work of Daily Bread could be likened to directing airlines without an airport. Matches have to be exact, from vendor to donor, during a time that works for volunteers.
As a board member for the Berkeley Food Network, Ignelzi would welcome a central hub, not only for ease of redistribution but to more efficiently and holistically serve the city.
“If someone has food insecurity issues then they probably have other issues the city or Berkeley Food Network volunteers can help address,” she said. “That’s not to say that BFN would become a shelter or a one-stop shop for all services, but it could become a means to access those services.” There is one big caveat to this vision.
“Until we have that physical location, that’s a problem,” said Ignelzi. “The discussions that we’re having with the city are so critical to the timeline that we have for the [full-scale operation of] Berkeley Food Network.”
“We have a great need of the services that the BFN has and we can’t wait to get started with it,” said Strawberry Creek Lodge resident Tom Slocumb. “I’m just hoping that the city can get its thing together.”
Despite support from councilwoman Hahn and Mayor Arreguín, the proposal to temporarily repurpose the former Premier Cru property was met with controversy at a recent City Council meeting owing to procedural objections. The proposal has since been shelved, at least for the time being.
Even though the BFN may not currently have the space it needs to better serve the community, it is still out there doing good. Since Feb. 9, the BFN offers produce-only distribution at South Berkeley Senior Center on the second and fourth Fridays of the month from 2-4 p.m. “We’re actually doing stuff on the ground right now,” said Webber.
Currently, the South Berkeley service is senior-focused, but not senior-exclusive. Berkeley Unified School District families have been invited to attend based on their status as recipients of free and reduced lunch.
The project is still young, Webber acknowledged, anticipating it will take time for word to spread. “But we estimate about 250 households will be served,” she said. A number that could grow to thousands, Webber noted, if only the organization had a place to hang its hat.