Atascadero Loaves and Fishes, also known as ALF, is an inspiring example of the powerful impact a highly organized non-profit agency with hard-working volunteers can have in its community – and that for more than 30 years!
The most essential part is ALF’s food pantry which holds groceries and other household items that volunteers give out to those in need from Atascadero, Templeton, Santa Margarita, Creston and the California Valley.
However, the influence of this rather inconspicuously looking facility goes way beyond just the distribution of food. The team of committed volunteers has created an extensive support network whose remarkable impact shows not only in the well-established day-to-day flow but also in the trusted connections with their clients.
Every person who walks through the door gets a chance to talk to a volunteer in a private setting to express personal concerns or special requests. “This interview was put in place to benefit our clients. We update their financial and family information, make notes on their disability or veteran status and simply ask how they are doing. Anything we know that might help them, we try to share,” said Kathleen Aragon who has been working with ALF for five years. She was originally asked to volunteer due to her bilingual skills and has since then become an integral part in taking care of the daily visitors. She continued to explain in more detail, “We tell them about locations to get a free, hot meal or a free shower close to their home. We hand out vouchers for clothing, including items for children and job interviews, that can be used at nearby thrift stores. We also have vouchers for propane. People over 60 get information about the senior nutrition education at the senior centers. We make them aware of additional food distributions that are operated by the SLO Food Bank. We also inform them about places that offer free flu shots. If someone is looking for housing and job opportunities, we connect them to the ECHO shelter. And we also remind them to call 211 whenever they need support.”
It is exactly this mindset of combining efforts that successfully connects people to all the resources that their community makes available for them in times of need.
From Monday to Friday, ALF’s doors at 5411 El Camino Real are open from 1:00 to 3:00pm to anyone who lives within the geographic area and seeks help, up to two times a month per person. The food that is available each day is given out on a first come, first serve basis. On average, 125 individuals (not counting their families) are served per week, and each person usually walks away with 20 lbs of food.
Since ALF belongs to one of the many non-profit agency partners that we closely work with to fill the hunger gap in SLO County, we asked if we could join them for one day to see up close how their little organization operates. Read on to learn more about the complexity it takes to keep this beloved social service agency running every single day!
Terrence Vail arrives to get the van ready for a grocery rescue at Albertsons in Paso Robles. On Tuesday and Thursday he has to leave extra early because his crew also needs the vehicle to pick up food at the Food Bank Coalition in San Luis Obispo.
“Our main reason for the grocery rescue is the meat, but they tend to give us everything that has to go, including sweets. Whatever items we cannot get from the rescue or the SLO Food Bank, we shop for at local supermarkets like Food 4 Less, Grocery Outlet, Dollar Store or Smart&Final,” Terrence explains on our way to Albertsons. “That’s when we use our grants or donations to buy groceries at the best price we can find. Sometimes, when there’s a good deal, we get a call from one of the store managers. The day before yesterday for example we were notified about a case of beans that were selling at $0.25 per can.”
Entirely volunteer-based and originally co-managed by a husband and his wife, two years ago ALF gave the management position to Terrence who already had prior volunteer experience from the Sonoma County and San Francisco Marine Food Bank. Now, his attention is required six days a week, but he gets help from Dorothy Green. Together, they split the days and share the workload. “On Saturday, we receive the leftover produce from the farmers market in Templeton,” he notes, “GleanSLO collects the food and brings it to us. It’s a wonderful program. They give us the produce at no cost. Our clients really appreciate the abundance of healthy options.”
We head back to the pantry with an incredible amount of bread in the trunk. Terrence calls the office to tell the other volunteers who have showed up in the meantime that everyone’s help is needed to unload the car. It’s Thursday and a quick turn-around is needed to get the van on the road again.
Back at the facility, a handful of volunteers eagerly weigh, sort and stack the newly arrived items from the grocery rescue into shelves, boxes and refrigeration units. This is the busiest time of the day when many hands are needed.
Purchased items from the stores arrive as well, and little by little, the food pantry fills with fresh produce and shelf-stable products. If enough clients show up, all the fresh food will be given out today. The plentiful amount of bread will be unlimited and gets stacked in the waiting area where people are allowed to take as much as they want. The rest of the items that need to be controlled stay inside the food pantry.
A delivery from KFC arrives with leftover chicken from the day before.
Two of the volunteers return the van loaded with items from the SLO Food Bank: green bell peppers, green beans, cabbage, lettuce, potatoes, artichokes, tomatoes, cereals and (more) bread.
The morning volunteers finish up and head home. Terrence takes his lunch break.
Kathleen arrives to prepare the front area for the clients.
1:00pm – 3:00pm
The first clients walk in, sign a clipboard with their name and take a seat along the wall. It’s the end of the month which usually brings a higher attendance since many people run out of food stamps or social security.
Kathleen and two other volunteers pull out binders that contain files of all the people that have received help in the past. Each file contains a photo of the individual, a proof of their address and any other information that is relevant to giving them the support they need. One by one, the visitors are asked to follow one of the volunteers into a private room for a quick interview. There, they also get a chance to view the menu and select all the items that they want and need. Often, the interview rooms also have a shelf full of bonus items (like light bulbs, band aids, cat food, among many other things) that clients are welcome to grab.
“The interview can last anywhere from two to ten minutes. Some people want to talk and go into details,” explains Kathleen as she is about to meet with her first client.
While the other visitors are waiting for their turn or for their requested food items to be packed, they get a chance to look at the bulletin board which contains current information for seniors, children and veterans or other helpful advice about housing, health and nutrition as well as additional resources.
Excitement spreads in the waiting room since news got out about the first available fair meat that was donated to the SLO Food Bank during the California Mid-State Fair and then distributed to agency partners. The meat being handed out today is lamb, and the visitors are eagerly talking about their favorite recipes and ways of preparing the meat for stew or stir fries.
Among the waiting visitors is Amanda who tells us that her husband stays home to take care of their autistic child. Amanda herself has an auto immune disease that limits the time she can work. She has been coming to ALF off and on for about two years, because the food they receive provides a great supplement. “Loaves and Fishes has really helped me and my family through hard times in our lives,” she notes with shy smile.
After the interview, the individuals’ menus are handed to the afternoon volunteers in the food pantry which then go to work and pack up the requested items for the clients. This is where the ingenuity of ALF’s team reveals itself: The items on the menu are listed in the order they are stacked on the shelves. An X marks the spot where the volunteers need to look across the aisle since they walk through the pantry in only one direction and will not return to aisles they have already passed. This keeps the workflow quick, efficient and organized. An empty line represents the beginning of a new aisle.
At the end, the entire shopping cart gets weighed and then handed to the clients outside the pantry door. The amount of food a person receives depends on their family size, but there is one exception: Visitors from the California Valley are allowed to receive a double order since they live so far away, but only if the pantry is not running low on food.
The process of interviewing and packing gets repeated for each individual that showed up that day. Two hours later, every client will have received a shopping cart full of food. The pantry will hopefully be empty, waiting to be filled again the next day. And Terrence, Kathleen and the other volunteers will lock the doors for the day, exhausted but with a big smile on their faces!