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For Placer Food Bank recipients, need is year round

Number of volunteers, donations and canned food drives increases during holiday season; but food bank needs assistance 365 days of the year
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Every week, Mike Duda hops up into the driver’s seat of a 24-foot-long refrigerated truck and takes off around Roseville. But he doesn’t know much about the vehicle he drives. “What I know about diesel engines could fit on the head of a pin,” Duda said. As a volunteer for Placer Food Bank, the retired high school teacher picks up food donations from local supermarkets and grocery stores, including Whole Foods Market, Raley’s, Target, Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart. During the holiday season, more volunteers join him, offering their services to the nonprofit agency, eager to help local families in need. But for food-insecure families, Christmastime is not the only season when they need assistance. For many people, this need persists week in and week out, which also means the need for volunteers doesn’t end just because the holidays do. Placer Food Bank serves about 40,000 individuals a month through nearly 60 partnering agencies — churches, soup kitchens, senior housing centers, domestic violence shelters and several other groups — around Placer, El Dorado and Nevada counties. These groups collect and distribute boxes of food. The organization expects to distribute about 8 million pounds of food to 600,000 people by the end of 2010. “Our numbers never fluctuate throughout the year,” said Placer Food Bank Executive Director Dave Martinez. The problem, though, is awareness fades. Operations Manager Troy Kuhn said donations tend to dry up from January through the end of September. He started the job about a year ago and said the food bank is busy all the time. “I thought it was supposed to slow down,” Kuhn said. “It doesn’t.” On a Friday morning in December, Duda prepared for a few hours of food pickups at Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart on Pleasant Grove Boulevard. He called the stores to let them know he was coming and then jumped in the truck parked outside the food bank’s warehouse on Industrial Avenue. Placer Food Bank received the refrigerated truck earlier this month through a Wal-Mart Foundation donation to Feeding America, a network of food-charity programs that includes Placer Food Bank. Through a $6 million grant, Wal-Mart donated a total of 65 refrigerated trucks to food banks this holiday season as part of a larger $2 billion commitment the company made to help end hunger in America. Before the refrigerated truck, volunteers picked up food at a store and rushed back to the Roseville warehouse to put perishables in the refrigerator and freezer. Then they went to the next stop and repeated the time-consuming and inefficient process. Duda is grateful for the new truck, he said as he maneuvered the vehicle through busy streets to Sam’s Club. “I don’t like to change lanes a lot in this great big thing,” he said. “This corner is always an adventure.” The Rocklin resident joined the volunteer ranks about a year and a half ago after retiring from 30 years of teaching English at Placer High School. He’s at the food bank three days a week. “It was something I’d wanted to do for a long time,” Duda said. “My dad was a truck driver and he was always impressing upon us how fortunate we were. Because we’re very lucky, we have a social responsibility to help others who are less fortunate.” Once at Sam’s Club, employees wheeled out a palette of goodies, including about 30 frozen pizzas, boxes of chocolate cake and pecan pie, loafs of bread and packages of sausage. Stores donate what’s called “distressed product,” or items close to their expiration date. “They always have a ton of pizzas for us,” Duda said. “(But) you never know for sure what you’re going to get.” Wal-Mart gives the most, Martinez said, at about 500,000 pounds of food a year, and the Pleasant Grove branch is the biggest donator in the United States. These donations are critical for the organization, which runs on an annual budget of about $1.5 million. Martinez said they raise 100 percent of their own money, generating funds through fundraisers, such as weekly bingo games, direct mailers and partnerships with other agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Placer Food Bank has 10 paid staff members and about 40 active volunteers. Currently, the community is hosting between 30 and 50 canned food drives. “We’re trying to get everyone to do more food drives throughout the year,” Martinez said. “To provide staples that are really hard to get, like canned food, pasta and cereals.” Instead, they use the extra money they get from December donations to purchase those items during dry months. After retrieving several palettes of food from Wal-Mart — meat, produce, packaged salad mix, Jell-O, eggs, bacon, hams — Duda returned to the food bank’s 11,000-square-foot warehouse. The food is logged into the computer system and organized on shelves. The following Monday, about 20 volunteers will sort through perishable items, tossing aside the rotten ones, and fill banana boxes with an assortment of food. On Tuesday, agencies will pick up the donations. And Duda, of course, will be there to help. “It’s a little self-serving,” he said. “I feel good because I’m doing good.” Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. ---------- For more information about Placer Food Bank, visit www.placerfoodbank.org.