Founded in 1983, Second Harvest’s mission is to end hunger in our community through food, nourishment and hope.
Hunger is a feeling we are familiar with. A light grumbling in an empty tummy is a discomfort most of us can alleviate with say, a bag of pretzels from a vending machine or a ripe plum from the market. But, there are some right here in Orange County that don’t have access to a snack, or even dinner.
CEO at Orange County’s Second Harvest Food Bank, Nicole Suydam’s grandmother was one of them.
“My grandmother was a single mom raising seven kids when my mother was little,” Suydam recalls, “And, she remembers a night, coming home and there was no food to feed the kids. She wasn’t even sure what she was going to do that night for dinner.”
According to a Hunger in America 2014 study conducted by Feeding America, 58 percent of Orange County households report choosing between paying for food and paying for housing. Fifty-one percent of households report having to choose between paying for food and paying for medicine or medical care.
Which is what makes Second Harvest Food Bank’s work so crucial.
Providing food to the hungry since 1983, Second Harvest is dedicated to ending hunger in our community through food, nourishment and hope. And, hunger isn’t necessarily defined as starvation.
“Essentially, we define hunger as people not knowing where their next meal is coming from…People skipping meals, missing meals because they just don’t have enough,” Suydam says.
Which is a larger problem in Orange County than most people realize.
“The challenge is that most people are surprised that there is hunger in our community. But, there are 60 million meals that people are missing each year in Orange County.” Nicole Suydam, CEO, Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County
Second Harvest partners with local charities and direct hunger relief programs to distribute food to more than 200,000 people each month.
Suydam began her career with Second Harvest in the 1990s. She left to work for other local charities before becoming the chief executive officer of Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County in 2012. In 2015, she joined Feeding America’s National Council and, today, she serves on the board of directors of the California Association of Food Banks.
“The core of our work is the collection and distribution of donated food,” says Suydam. “We also run programs that target needs in the community, specifically to the most vulnerable, which are children and seniors.”
Suydam and her team achieve that in a number of ways.
Children benefit from their programs like Kids Cafe, which provides 50 after-school programs at Boys and Girls Club sites throughout the county with healthy meals to give to their participants.
“We really pick the kids that are most at risk of going hungry or not getting a good dinner at home at night in areas where there is a high rate of free lunch program participation.”
They also provide food via mobile pantries that supply food directly to families in underserved neighborhoods. They make 56 mobile pantry stops each month, distributing staple items and, more importantly, fresh produce.
“Fresh produce is available here to us because we are in Southern California,” Suydam says, “We get produce donated, but we find a lot of our partners have a hard time storing it, so we offer the mobile pantry service, where we come out to our partners, and we provide fresh produce to those communities.”
Which is good, since an alarming 79 percent of Orange County households report purchasing inexpensive and unhealthy food because they can’t afford healthier options.
Another way Second Harvest has found to successfully get fresh fruit and veggies to those who need them is through school pantries, in which produce is presented in a farmers market-style setting.
“They are more pop-ups in nature,” Suydam explains. “We set it up and take it down, generally after school, once a month.”
School Pantries take place at 18 locations in the county, and the demand for the program is high. Forty schools applied for the program when it was first introduced. It is so popular, in fact, that Second Harvest is piloting its very first permanent school pantry at Lincoln Elementary School in Anaheim. This trial pantry keeps regular hours and is fully stocked.
“All the things we do are the best practices in terms of how you distribute food to people in a dignified way…we are doing this with this pantry.”
Seniors, also an at-risk group for hunger, are included in Second Harvests’ programming.
“A lot of seniors are reliant on a single form of income like Social Security or disability, and our programs can help them make ends meet,” says Suydam.
Seniors in 36 locations receive two bags of groceries twice a month as a part of the Brown Bags for Seniors program. Seven subsidized senior housing locations in the county are currently participating in a new pilot program called Senior Gardens, in which volunteers work with seniors to plant produce. It’s a way to provide them with both food and healthy outdoor activity.
“We basically supply seniors with the tools they need to grow their own food, and we want to see if that concept is a good concept to roll out to other areas.”
The food Second Harvest distributes depends heavily on food donations from restaurants, grocery stores, food manufacturers, growers and packers, their own Incredible Edible Farm, Feeding America, the USDA, and local food drives. But, they also raise funding in a few other ways that are as creative as their programs. The “No Lunch” Lunch held every year around Thanksgiving is one example.
“The luncheon has been going on since we started back in 1983,” Suydam says.
Taking place this year at the food bank on November 24th, guests will receive a “poor man’s lunch,” consisting of a bowl of soup, a piece of bread and a glass of water served by Chef Antonio Cagnolo, who is the owner and operator of Antonello Ristorante, Quattro Caffé, Nello Cucina, and Antonello Espresso Bar at South Coast Plaza.
“Antonio always does this event; it is his annual tradition,” Suydam says. “And, it really is a time to reflect.”
Funds are also raised by dedicated groups like the Harvesters, a group of ladies formed in 1992, who have raised awareness and hundreds of thousands of dollars for Second Harvest, raising more than $5 million since they were founded. The group hosted its 23rd Annual Fashion Show & Luncheon at South Coast Plaza earlier this month, which included a silent auction and New York-style fashion show sponsored by South Coast Plaza.
So can these combined efforts really eradicate hunger in Orange County?
“How we envision solving the problem is by closing the meal gap,” Suydam says. “We are supplying 20 million meals this year, and we are hoping to get to 30 million by the year 2020…There are other organizations that work in Orange County to end hunger, so we are looking at how we can partner together. I think the resources are there. It’s just a matter of getting the food to the people that need it.”
Just as a food bank got resources to Suydam’s grandmother all those years ago.
“She didn’t know what to do about dinner that night and a woman knocked on the door and had enough food to feed the whole family,” she says, “So I think about that. We have an immediate impact. That brings it home for me.”
Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, 8014 Marine Way, Irvine, CA 92618 949.653.2900 :: FeedOC.org