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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