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Stockton Food Bank Cooks Up Healthy Meals

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, May 14, 2010

The Stockton Emergency Food Bank is one of the biggest and busiest food banks in California. Don’t confuse it with a soup kitchen. It’s a sprawling complex of industrial buildings on the southern fringe of downtown. But it’s also a place where low-income people can learn to feed themselves well.  
It’s loud and busy here. A backhoe roams the asphalt lot and hoists a pallet of surplus Wolfgang Puck soup to a warehouse. Hungry people waiting outside in a food line don’t know what they’ll take home today. Inside, volunteers hit their bagging rhythm.

A clerk screams “next on line!” Another volunteer asks Rosalina Rivera for her ticket. Rivera has waited her turn. She’s been coming here a year.
“Yes, it’s very bad. My husband is not working, like only once month. Two years ago, started that bad.” 

Now she fills her cart. “Coffeemate, applesauce, yogurt, dozen eggs. I don’t know what is this? Turkey ham…?”

Any food can end up here from anywhere. Mustard refused at Safeway. Overstock onions from Trader Joe’s. Surplus radicchio, anyone? Mistakes are good for the hungry.

“We got a whole bunch of sausage from a truck that actually tipped over,” says Gary Pierce, the food bank’s operations manager. “Everything was still frozen. It became an insurance claim for the trucking company and food for the low-income families of Stockton.”

 Low-income families are flocking to Stockton’s food bank in staggering numbers, sometimes up to 400 families in 3 hours. Tim Viall, the executive director, makes sure on Fridays there’s more going on here than a hand-out.

“We’re trying also to preach the gospel of good nutrition and show these families how to take inexpensive food and turn it into good meals,” Viall says.

He’s doing that by using a bounty of Central Valley fruits and vegetables donated here every day. Many of these recipients don’t know what to do with such random produce. So, Viall and his team initiated a nutrition program -- with cooking classes.

Teresa Aguirre heads up today's class. "I’ve got asparagus sliced up in a diagonal shape…looks a little prettier, a little more appetizing,” she says as the skillet begins to sizzle. Aguirre is bilingual. She conducts the class in half-English, half-Spanish.

The room she teaches in is a converted storeroom. The makeshift kitchen is jammed with about 20 students.    
Their incentive for attending is extra food after class is over. But now, they’re riveted on Aguirre's simple asparagus saute.

“Another good cooking tip,” Aguirre says, "is you don’t want to overcook your vegetables. They’re going to get soggy and all the vitamins are going to get leached out of the vegetables. …"

The healthy attributes of the asparagus give Aguirre an opening to launch the week’s nutrition lesson on bone health. “Do we know what osteoporosis is? Si sabe lo que es?”

In her classes, Aguirre covers label-reading and even food safety in the home. Her easy-going lectures are really sinking in. A student says in Spanish that he’s adjusted his cooking habits. Aguirre translates: “He says that when he’s cooking now he’s checking the temperatures, making sure everything’s cooking properly, as well as using different cutting boards.”

The staff at the Stockton food bank knows their work has no end.  Federico Navarro, the food bank’s nutrition service director, says they’re not trying to change the world.

“It’s really about making small changes to better your lifestyle,” Navarro says, “to better your eating behaviors, to better your environment.”

As Aguirre finishes her asparagus saute, a delicious aroma settles over the room. The class says “yummmm,” as she mentions more garlic. Not bad, coming off an electric hot plate on a folding table.

These classes are crucial for Viall, the executive director. He wants more people to take these nutrition lessons to heart -- to eat better, become more self-sufficient “and not have to come to food banks as often.”

Viall has big plans for the future. The Stockton Emergency Food Bank is raising funds for a new Nutrition Education Center, complete with a real kitchen. Then, nutrition instructor Teresa Aguirre can get rid of that hot plate.
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