The Berkeley Food Network distributed nearly 2 million pounds of food in the community last year, including fresh produce from farms and even from residents with fruit trees. Credit: Shoey-Sindel-Photography

When demand on the Alameda County Community Food Bank skyrocketed in March of 2020, the Bayer Fund stepped in with a $600,000 grant to help food from the county reach dozens of pantries and services in Berkeley, close to people who needed it.

The county food bank had already been collaborating with Berkeley Food Network before the pandemic; the global crisis accelerated their joint efforts to create a redistribution organization. The additional funding helped at a crucial time. 

And what a difference that made: In 2019, the Berkeley Food Network distributed 351,000 pounds of food in the Berkeley area. In 2020, it more than tripled that amount to 1.25 million pounds. And in 2021, it distributed nearly 2 million pounds. The Berkeley Food Network coordinates getting that food to 70 smaller food pantries and other local agencies to combat hunger.

According to Sara Webber, executive director and co-founder of the Berkeley Food Network, before the pandemic, “only a quarter of the people who were experiencing food insecurity in Berkeley and Albany were able to access existing pantry and prepared-meal-assistance programs.”

The pandemic made that effort more urgent. At the start of 2020, a busy day for the food bank’s Emergency Food Helpline meant fielding 40 to 60 calls. In mid-March, calls spiked to 400 a day. Within a month, the organization went from distributing 600,000 pounds of food a week to more than 1 million pounds.

In May of 2020 — backed by the grant from Bayer Fund, the philanthropic arm of Bayer in the United States — the Alameda County Community Food Bank (ACCFB) and the Berkeley Food Network (BFN) dove into action. BFN began working with some community agencies on a pilot basis, redirecting food that the county food bank procures — mostly through purchases, but also from donations and partnerships with organizations like the California Association of Food Banks. 

“Partnering with ACCFB was a great way to get food to as many of the food assistance organizations in this area as we could,” Webber said. “Driving down to ACCFB to pick up food is a trek, and many organizations don’t have large storage capacity. We can make sure the food they need is always here.”

By June 2021, the Berkeley Food Network was a full-fledged redistribution organization.

Getting started

It was an ambitious plan. Redistribution organizations, or RDOs, are typically found in rural communities, where one organization serves as a hub for food distribution across a wide area. In the Berkeley pilot project, the groups aimed to create one of the nation’s first urban RDOs. Moreover, the BFN was operating very lean, with just a part-time warehouse associate and two full-time employees.

With the support of the Bayer Fund grant, ACCFB provided operational guidance to help Berkeley Food Network scale up. BFN implemented a robust inventory system, improved warehouse operations and more than quadrupled its staff, giving it the processes and infrastructure to serve as a hub between food sources and frontline organizations in the community that are well-positioned to improve food access.

The Berkeley Food Network runs a food pantry on Ninth Street and redistributes donations to about 70 other local locations. Credit: Shoey-Sindel-Photography

Jens Vogel, Global Head of Biotech for Bayer Pharmaceuticals and member of the Bayer Fund board of directors, said that supporting this program “made incredible sense for us philanthropically.” 

“Innovation doesn’t just happen at the laboratory bench,” Vogel said. “It is the actions we take to do things more efficiently — whether it’s in our operations where we work at Bayer to speed the process of developing and manufacturing biotherapeutics or where we can support agencies that increase efficient distribution of food to those in need.”

Through the RDO partnership, every month, the county food bank trucks deliver 80,000 pounds of food, more than 66,000 meals, to the Berkeley Food Network’s facility. The food network then redistributes that food to its own network of partners. The added efficiency of this model means the two organizations can reach deeper into the Berkeley community and scale to provide better services to anyone who needs them.  

“It’s important to invest in innovation as nonprofits,” said Juan Francisco Orozco, manager of corporate and foundation relations with ACCFB. “You really never know what’s coming down the pipeline in terms of emergency and challenges to your community.”

Today, food comes through Berkeley Food Network’s facility not just from the Alameda County Community Food Bank’s warehouse but also from wholesale purchases, donations and food recovery programs — including partnerships brokered through ACCFB’s own sustainability program. Making sure food isn’t wasted is key.

“It can be grocery stores, food manufacturers, food wholesalers or even somebody who has lots of fruit trees in their backyard,” said Webber, the food network director. “Some of the small specialty farms in the area will donate produce that they’re not selling.”

Then, the network distributes it to people as close to where they live as possible. It operates an on-site pantry at the corner of Ninth Street and University Avenue, but the bulk of its food goes to mobile and fixed pantries across the community, as well as the Berkeley Public School Bag Program and various hot meal programs. Its reach includes three Head Start sites, all 17 sites of the Berkeley Unified School District, the Berkeley Adult School, the South Berkeley Senior Center and Harriet Tubman Terrace, an affordable housing community. BFN’s hub kitchen program also creates and distributes about 800 meals a week.

Moving forward

While pandemic restrictions have lifted, food insecurity has remained high in Berkeley and beyond. Inflation, the loss of federal COVID benefits and other economic challenges continue to create demand, Webber said.

“We also like to think that people understand that to stay healthy, they need healthy foods,” she said. With Berkeley Food Network’s expansion, more people now have access to fresh produce and other nutritional options. “When we surveyed people, they really did want those healthy foods and couldn’t afford them, so they come here.”

In addition to meeting ongoing needs through their networks of partner agencies, both BFN and Alameda County Community Food Bank are looking for opportunities to engage systems that impact hunger.

“We think about ourselves at the tipping point of the food access movement and the anti-hunger movement,” said Orozco of ACCFB. “When somebody’s hungry, it’s often because there are other issues going on in the community.”