By Kevin Drabinski, Chief Executive Officer
Food is and always has been the great connector. It is that which when placed between us brings us closer together and fosters community.
But up until a few years ago, the Food Bank Coalition’s distributions of fresh produce and shelf-stable product prevented those without access to a kitchen or shelter from having a way to utilize this nutrition.
That’s when a collaborative idea sprung up between the Food Bank Coalition, Janna Nichols and her team at Five Cities Homeless Coalition. Together we re-imagined food that could be distributed which did not require storage, refrigeration, or cooking.
What came to be called No-Cook Bags are essentially about four meals and two snacks worth of food which can be used by people without shelter.
With their intended user in mind, these bags contain cans with pull top lids that hold protein, and plastic jars of peanut butter, and other meal items, snacks, and hydration.
The expansion in the popularity of No-Cook Bags shows that they have proven to be one effective way to connect those who are homeless with next level services that can promote health. And for agencies that deal directly with the homeless these no-cook food distributions have served as an invitation for those without shelter to explore the idea of accessing different resources.
Tim Connely is an outreach clinician with Transitions Mental Health and he made a recent round by the Food Bank Coalition to collect 25 bags.
Tim said, “In my outreach to encampments along the Bob Jones Bike Trail an offering the food builds trust. People come to view me not as a threat but as a help to them. Food is a great way to build that trust and in doing so I’ve been able to place 8 to 10 people on a housing list.”
Trent Owings of County Drug and Alcohol services also picked up bags recently and sees food as a good way to start conversations. Trent says he is seeing lots of folks come up from the river beds around the Salinas River in north county because of the rising water level and the rains and cold.
Trent said, “If we can get people in the door with food then we can start exploring other resources that can put someone on the road to sobriety. Then we can work with them to gain job skills and other resources they need.”
And it’s not only homeless outreach agencies and social services that are using No-Cook Bags. Public safety officials have seen the tenor of conversations change for the better when they lead with an offering of food at an approach to a homeless camp.
While collecting 20 No-Cook Bags one recent Monday, SLO Police Officer Tim Koznek and THMA social worker John Klevins spoke to the utility of this unique food distribution. John Klevins said, “We know in work on a Community Action Team that it takes several touches with a person before they are open to receiving services. Food is a basic way of showing that we’re there to help, that our meeting holds in it the offer to access services. Whether they take us up on our offer of shelter, or access to health care, or just us helping them get through a process at the DMV, food is a way to help us make those connections.”
Other public safety offices that regularly access No-Cook Bags include the Atascadero Police Department, and County Sheriff and Probation.
No-Cook Bags have even found their way in to county agencies that provide access to basic aid and employment assistance. Employment Services Supervisor Jennifer Nitzel works out of the county’s Prado Road office and said, “The team at our office used to bring food in from home for our clients. Some people are literally starving when they come in for a face-to-face interview prior to approval of their CalWORKs application. This food gives them the energy to complete an application and serves as a bridge to services that can really help people get back on their feet.”
Kim Hampton supervises a Leadership Outreach Team at the Morro Bay office of County Social Services. “I’ve seen big men brought to tears at the offer of food during an interview. It connects with people and is helpful to entire families that come in.”
No-Cook Bags continue the practice of food as the great connector. This innovative distribution method helps reduce isolation, especially among those without shelter and continues to bring us closer together as a caring community.