Recently on Inside Julia’s Kitchen, a podcast of The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, host Todd Schulkin talked with CEC’s SBC Food Rescue Coordinator Julia Blanton about food rescue and how it has been used to address food insecurity and put restaurants back to work during the Covid-19 pandemic. Plus, Julia shares her “Julia Moment”.
Listen to the podcast or read the interview below (this interview has been edited for clarity and length).
Todd Schulkin: Between the recent wildfires, mudslides, and now the pandemic, Santa Barbara has its share of need. Today we are turning our attention to that need as it is only becoming more acute in the wake of COVID-19. Someone working on the front lines of Santa Barbara’s COVID relief effort is Julia Blanton, the Santa Barbara County Food Rescue Program Coordinator at the Community Environmental Council. We met Julia when the Foundation sought ways to help put local restaurants back to work while also helping those in need. When we entered the conversation, the CEC was already working with the Santa Barbara Alliance for Community Transformation, also known as SB ACT, another nonprofit focused on the most marginalized, including the homeless. Together, they created the Community Food Collaborative and the Foundation was pleased to make a grant that helps support its launch. Julia Blanton joins us today to tell us more about the Community Food Collaborative, and talk about the pandemic’s impact on food security in Santa Barbara. Welcome to the podcast Julia.
Julia Blanton: Hi, good morning, Todd. Thank you.
TS: How are things going in Santa Barbara right now?
JB: Things are coming to a new normal. We are getting a little more comfortable with the current situation and being able to respond to it. Needs are still there, but we are adjusting as necessary.
TS: Well, that is good to hear. Can you talk about what CEC was already doing in regards to Food Rescue work before the pandemic?
JB: Santa Barbara County Food Rescue is a collaborative food recovery network with support from private, public and nonprofit sectors. The goal is to build relationships between donors with extra food and charitable organizations to prevent produce and restaurant quality food from going to the landfill. Instead we are getting it to those facing hunger throughout the county – essentially making sure that food that has already been produced, and all of the resources used to produce that food, serves its intended purpose of feeding people.
TS: I assume that the Community Environmental Council came to that from the waste side of things, initially, and then it was joined up with the need side of things. Was that the original approach?
JB: Yes – in 2016, the Community Environmental Council partnered with the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, Santa Barbara Foundation and over 200 community organizations to assess the food system in Santa Barbara County – everything from growing food to disposing of food and finding or looking at ways that we could make a more resilient food system. 16 strategies were born from the Food Action Plan – two of which were reducing food waste and increasing food access for all. In addition to addressing hunger, reducing food waste is critical to lessening the impacts of climate change. When food ends up in landfills, it breaks down into methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
TS: I think this topic has come up quite a bit during the pandemic, particularly once lockdown started and people started panic buying. People were saying “there’s enough food, there’s enough food.” But there has always been this big disconnect between the supply and the need. Was that already in play in Santa Barbara?
JB: Exactly. A lot of our food comes from outside of the county. As a result, we have a delocalized food system – and that affects the whole supply chain, including local food access. According to David Cleveland, a food systems researcher at UCSB, 95 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the county are shipped in from elsewhere. Meanwhile, we produce approximately 9 times the amount of produce consumed – less than 1% of produce grown in Santa Barbara County is consumed here.
TS: How did the Community Food Collaborative come together?
JB: After the pandemic hit, we began looking at ways that we could use our distribution channels, relationships and networking mindset to serve the community in a different way. We started reaching out to our partners, like SB ACT, to learn how the pandemic was affecting them and what else we could do to support. We learned that City Net’s and New Beginnings Counseling Center’s clients who were experiencing homelessness were abruptly unable to access their normal sources of food. At the same time, due to stay-at-home orders, we saw the closing of local restaurants and the distribution challenges for farmers. Being forced to cease their normal operations put them in a precarious position. We saw an opportunity to support both by raising funds to purchase meals made with local ingredients.
TS: So SB ACT, New Beginnings and City Net represented the need, which is where the most acute food insecurity was?
JB: Yes – there were a number of populations that were at risk, but the unsheltered population was hardest hit because their normal channels for receiving food were abruptly shut down – congregate meal sites were no longer acceptable under CDC COVID-19 guidelines. The unsheltered were no longer able to panhandle because people were not out and about the way that they had been. Additionally, many of the charitable feedings that take place through churches or faith based organizations rely heavily on volunteers, many of whom had to stay at home. Very quickly, the unsheltered population went from having food to not having food – and unfortunately, they do not have a stock of supplies because they live with what they can carry. This was an issue that needed to be addressed quickly.
TS: Can you walk us through what was happening between the restaurants and suppliers?
JB: In general, Food Rescue focuses on rescuing excess food at restaurants, grocery stores or other outlets that is in excess of what is actually sold or utilized. But when COVID-19 hit, these outlets were impacted – some shut down completely while others reduced operations. Very quickly, we learned that warehouses were the place where excess food was housed and that was the food that we could distribute to hungry people. So even before the Community Food Collaborative, we quickly activated and distributed excess food. For example, Sysco in Oxnard had excess food that we were able to deliver to a chef who volunteered to cook that food for the homeless population. It was while these types of quick response activations were taking place that we began conversations with City Net and SB ACT on how to develop a more sustainable plan, which would become the Community Food Collaborative.
TS: When you are rescuing this food, are you usually purchasing it or is it donated?
JB: No, all of this food is donated. It is generally prepared meals, like the grab-and-go options you see at grocery stores or leftovers from catering events. The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County does a significant amount of grocery rescue – extra bread and non-perishable food items. Anything that needs to be pulled off the shelf for one reason or another – maybe it was overstock, maybe it is getting close to its expiration date – that would be pulled and donated to an organization because it is still perfectly safe to eat. Then we distribute it through our nonprofit network in Santa Barbara.
TS: Are you sort of a matchmaker? Linking the supply to the charitable organizations that identify needs and distribute?
JB: Exactly. I contact businesses that have extra food – distributors, restaurants, caterers – and let them know that Food Rescue is an avenue, that their donation is protected by law, and that it will be distributed to hungry people. Most people are passionate about food and don’t want to see it go to waste. They are excited to get on board. I reach out to nonprofits and play matchmaker. It is common to think a little bit of food is not worth donating, but we can usually find a nonprofit partner that is serving a small number of people, so a small amount is perfect for them. My role is learning what people have to offer for donation and what nonprofits need – and connecting those dots. I also coordinate transportation partners, such as Veggie Rescue, which transports donated excess food from Chumash Casino to the Buellton Senior Center.
TS: How are the shuttered restaurants? How did they get involved? What part did they play when you started the Community Food Collaborative?
JB: We were hearing from food donors and partners that restaurants were closing and laying off their employees. We reached out to Sherry Villanueva at Acme Hospitality to see if we could find ways to help. She was trying to find ways to support her staff and keep them working – and we needed to feed people. In order to address these immediate needs in our community, we decided to use funds raised through the Community Food Collaborative to purchase meals from Acme Hospitality, which would help keep some of their staff working, feed people in our community and keep money in our local food system while we looked at longer term solutions.
TS: Acme Hospitality, which is the parent company to several local restaurants in Santa Barbara, opened a couple of their kitchens to help. Were they using their own suppliers or did you work together to link up between their suppliers and your suppliers to get food that they could then make for the various other charitable organizations to distribute?
JB: Sherry took the reins and continued to use their normal suppliers. We chose to work with Acme Hospitality because they source locally – we wanted to make sure that we kept as much funding local as possible, and support farmers and food suppliers in our area.
TS: One of the things I was struck by is the disparate need among the different food insecure communities. For example, there is a great need for prepared foods or prepared meals that either only require a microwave to reheat – or do not require heating at all.
JB: We were surprised at how many different types of people could benefit from the prepared meals. Our unsheltered population, who do not have access to kitchens. Families that are stuck at home balancing busy schedules and increased responsibilities who have a kitchen but may not have time each day to prepare a meal. Seniors who do not feel safe leaving their home and may only have access to a microwave. Home delivery of prepared meals became even more critical during this time due to the stay-at-home order. Another population that is commonly overlooked are farmworkers, who as essential workers, still had to go to work but were unable to get to the grocery store when store hours were reduced because of their long work days. If food access was not an issue, shared kitchen space often was – many live in shared living situations where they share a kitchen with multiple families and individuals, making it difficult to sanitize and maintain social distancing.
TS: How did this impact distribution?
JB: The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County shifted their distribution from in-person to drive-through and continued to serve a significant number of families. Other local nonprofits also shifted to drive-through distribution or home delivery. For the unsheltered population, nonprofits went out to encampments and other places where we know they live rather than encouraging them to congregate for a meal.
TS: Can we talk more about the impact of the Community Food Collaborative – from when you started to where you are right now? What has the impact been? Has it been able to expand? How will it work moving forward?
JB: We have been able to extend the program a few more weeks since the pandemic is lasting longer than we expected. Currently, we have distributed about 3,500 meals to low income families and those experiencing homelessness. We currently have enough funding to distribute 5,110 meals through July 3 – if additional funds are raised, we would extend the program again and continue to extend as long as we have the funding. We have learned from our distribution partners that there is still a need for nonperishable items – these help recipients get through days when a prepared meal is not delivered. In response, a food bag collaborative was created, which has provided 1,000 grocery bags filled with nonperishable items in the past two weeks. Doctors Without Walls, the distribution partner, shared that the goal is to distribute 7,200 bags through the end of August – they are also raising funds to add tokens to the local farmers market that can be used to purchase fresh produce, meat and other locally grown food. These three efforts provide a variety of options, encouraging and enabling them to make healthy choices at the same time.
TS: Do you feel like the Community Food Collaborative has been effective in putting restaurants back to work or has it just been a partnership with Acme Hospitality?
JB: So far it has just been a partnership with Acme Hospitality. Restaurants have high overhead and we learned along the way that spreading the love across multiple restaurants is not necessarily the most cost effective method. A restaurant requires a significant source of revenue to make it worthwhile to hire back staff. Our partnership with Acme Hospitality has made it possible for them to hire back a few staff members, but nowhere near their entire staff. In addition to cooking the meals, we also engaged their staff to hand out meals to unsheltered populations – this allocated more hours for Acme staff and allowed City Net staff to stay focused on social work.
TS: Who in Santa Barbara has been historically the most food insecure and how has that picture changed with the pandemic?
JB: Nearly 30% of Santa Barbara’s workforce is in hospitality, retail or agriculture – all commonly low income jobs that were heavily impacted by the pandemic. We very quickly saw people who historically never needed assistance suddenly requiring assistance. Pre-COVID-19, 21% of adults experienced food insecurity in Santa Barbara – the pandemic caused an uptick. According to Northwestern University, the rate of food insecurity in California is 2.4 times what it was pre-pandemic. The food insecure population is not just unsheltered people. It impacts students, low income families, and senior citizens. Hispanics have twice the rate of food insecurity (30%) as non-Hispanic whites (15%). These populations are forced to choose between paying bills, paying rent, or purchasing food.
TS: So what you are saying is that the overall picture of who tends to suffer from food insecurity has not changed dramatically – but the magnitude has.
TS: In Santa Barbara, what component of this food insecure population do the homeless represent?
JB: I do not have exact numbers, but it definitely is a small part. What I have heard from local food banks is that an unexpected car expense or one missing paycheck is enough to make a family question where their next meal might come from. It might come as a surprise to some, but food insecurity is just as much an issue for working families, students and seniors as it is for the homeless.
TS: A large percentage of people who are working are not being paid fair wages or consistently enough to keep up.
TS: Do you feel that the pandemic is going to reshape your work?
JB: The pandemic has not really changed our work so much as it has accelerated it. In 2018 and 2019 combined, we rescued about 38,000 pounds of food. So far in 2020, we have rescued over 80,000 pounds of food. We have seen an increase in donations and attention, which has allowed us to build the network and engage additional partners. We are learning about different nonprofits and their needs. We already had big ideas for the future of our network: promoting collaboration, creating efficiencies, and bringing in different sectors to show how intertwined our goals are — reducing waste, protecting our environment and feeding people really all come together with food rescue. I dreamt of creating a network of community kitchens that could receive rescued food and prepare it or repackage it, extending the time we have to get food to those who need it. We want to provide an option for people who are unable to cook for themselves due to a lack of time, knowledge or access to kitchen space. The pandemic has helped move these goals forward and highlights needs that might not otherwise have been realized.
The potential for community kitchens was demonstrated recently when we worked with Sysco and Veggie Rescue to get rescued food to the Salvation Army kitchen in Santa Maria. They were able to increase their daily meal production from 120 to 900. It is incredible to think about the impact of diverting food that would have likely ended up in the landfill to a large centralized kitchen where it can be processed and distributed to people who need it. Our goal is to expand the number of kitchens that can receive rescued food and bring down the cost of prepared meals for distribution through our partners.
TS: Would these community kitchens be permanent facilities?
JB: Yes – we are looking at shared space rather than a stand alone kitchen that is just for one purpose, focusing on underutilized kitchens. For example, if the kitchen is not being used in the evenings or on weekends, we could bring in volunteer chefs to use rescued food to prepare meals for distribution. It is about sharing resources throughout the county and partnering together to make something bigger happen.
TS: You mentioned how much more rescued food you are receiving during the pandemic. What are you hearing from the suppliers that you work with – will they continue to have excess food or is this only temporary? Are you worried this excess may disappear?
JB: The goal is to never have excess, but the food system is complex and unpredictable – there will always be a reason to have channels and processes in place for utilizing excess food. For example, restaurants are experiencing a disruption in their distribution channels, which is requiring them to order for a few days or even a week at a time as opposed to daily pre-COVID-19. This affects the amount of excess food restaurants have, which will impact the consumer and food rescue organizations. We need to be flexible and ready to receive excess food, no matter when and how much. The need for food rescue is ongoing, albeit unpredictable.
TS: It sounds like you are not terribly worried that if suddenly the situation improves there will be no excess food. It sounds like it is inevitable that excess food will be available because of the uncertainty and inefficiencies that exist.
JB: Exactly – and there are other situations that come about. For example, when there is a power shut off, due to a fire or other emergency, kitchen or grocery store refrigeration can be affected. We would need an avenue to quickly receive that food and transport it to another location that does have power and can serve that food so that it does not go to waste.
TS: Are you the main group that is doing this in Santa Barbara County right now? Are there several?
JB: The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County does a significant amount of grocery store rescue. We stepped in to fill the gap for prepared food recovery. Our goal is to build a county-wide network that encompasses all of the different food rescue efforts so that we can work more collaboratively and have a clear, efficient system in place. The Foodbank rescues from grocery stores, SBC Food Rescue and its partners rescue from restaurants and Veggie Rescue gleans from local farms. We are working together to make sure that all areas of the food system are covered.
TS: Are you in touch with a network of similar providers throughout California? Or is this unique to Santa Barbara County?
JB: It is an evolving model. We are learning from an organization in Orange County called Waste Not OC. It is unique to have the collaborative approach – oftentimes, organizations are siloed or cannot easily collaborate due to lack of resources or time. This idea of collaboration across organizations is new, but it is a model that we are seeing flourish across the state.
TS: I love that this program is an intersection between environmental action, food justice and food resources, because oftentimes those are reflected as separate avenues and they do not come together. I assume the funding that the Community Environmental Council receives enables this unique rescue operation to happen.
JB: I agree – when talking with organizations that rescue food, many do not necessarily see the impact their programs have on the environment by diverting food from the landfill – they just see it as feeding people. When food is wasted, all of the resources that went into producing that food are wasted. In the landfill, it breaks down into methane, which is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide – and contributes more heavily to global warming – so it is critical to keep excess food out of the landfill. Food rescue programs are an opportunity for organizations that might not have otherwise connected to come together for a common goal.
TS: We talked a few weeks ago about what role World Central Kitchen may have in the Community Food Collaborative – have you heard an update from them on what they are doing in Ventura County and if they may expand into Santa Barbara County?
JB: I have not talked with them recently. A few weeks ago, I spoke with Jason Collis, World Central Kitchen’s Director of Procurement. I learned that they were on an expansion freeze and could not expand into Santa Barbara without additional financial support. He also shared that before COVID-19, World Central Kitchen’s disaster response entailed opening up one central kitchen to prepare meals, but since restaurants were so heavily impacted by COVID-19, they have now activated to hire local restaurants and put people back to work. They are also adapting. I do not know if they participate in food rescue, but I would imagine they do. Our programs have many similarities – adapting to the needs at hand.
TS: What is your short term and long term outlook for your program?
JB: That is a difficult question to answer since things are evolving so quickly. We continue to check in with our partners about the ever changing needs in our community. As programs in certain areas shut down, we expect needs to go up – for example, there is a high likelihood that more people will experience homelessness as eviction moratoriums expire. We need to find more affordable, sustainable ways to meet these needs. For example, with additional funding, we could activate a few more community kitchens and streamline production to lower the cost of meals. Development of these systems will help prepare our community for the next disaster.
TS: You have funds to keep the Community Food Collaborative going through July – could more funding extend the program to meet the extended need?
JB: With more funds, we would be able to serve more people through the Collaborative. We are also looking at ways that the Collaborative could shift – as restaurants reopen and resume normal service, we might be able to shift to the community kitchen model or use more recovered food to bring the cost of prepared meals down so that we can feed more people.
TS: I think it is important for people to keep in mind that even if public health improves, you are still anticipating the lasting economic impacts from the pandemic and the food insecurity that will create.
JB: Yes – we are already talking with organizations that serve farmworkers, students, seniors, and the unsheltered population – the impacts will be long lasting and we expect the need to continue.
TS: Are there ways that the folks listening to this podcast can help?
JB: Please consider a donation to SBC Food Rescue, the Community Food Collaborative, which is sponsored by SB ACT, or other nonprofit partners. Find out what local resources exist in your area and volunteer if you are able to. Pay attention to your neighbors – do they need assistance? Do you have resources you can share? Sometimes those who need help the most do not know how to access benefits. If you work in the food industry, consider donating your surplus food to a local nonprofit. If your restaurant or nonprofit is in Santa Barbara County, you can sign up with SBC Food Rescue to be a donor or recipient organization.
TS: Great. Thank you for sharing those resources. From Julia’s immortal words we move into our last segment, which we call the Julia Moment. This is when we ask our guests to share their favorite Julia memory moment or how she has inspired them in their career. Okay, Julia Blanton, what is your “Julia moment”?
JB: Most of what I know about Julia is through interviews, presentations, and of course I have seen the movie Julia and Julia. What stuck with me most was that once she found her passion she just ran at it with a strong curiosity, dedication and commitment. She was never deterred. And she was just a super hard worker who focused on endurance from the very beginning, giving her all to each of her endeavors: cookbooks, culinary schools, TV shows, mentoring. She did it all and she did it well. I have adopted a similar work ethic – seeking to learn as much as I can to make the biggest impact possible.
TS: Thank you very much for sharing your “Julia Moment” – and for sharing about the Community Food Collaborative and how important this program has been and will continue to be.
The Community Environmental Council would like to acknowledge support from the Santa Barbara Foundation COVID-19 Joint Response Grant which enabled our Julia, our SBC Food Rescue Coordinator, to step up her outreach and collaborative efforts. Thank you!
We also thank the following organizations for supporting the Community Food Collaborative:
The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts
Social Venture Partners Santa Barbara
Zegar Family Foundation
Natalie Orfalea Foundation
Thistle & Rose Foundation
Finally, thank you to the following organizations who have contributed to enable SBC Food Rescue continue this important work for the next year:
Cal Recycle – Food Waste Prevention and Rescue Grant
Living Peace Foundation
Ann Jackson Family Foundation