What brings more than 5,000 people to Garden Plaza in downtown Visalia on a chilly Thanksgiving morning at 7:30 a.m.? The Race Against Hunger (or “Turkey Trot” as some affectionately call it)-the largest 5k run/2-mile walk in the Central Valley! The atmosphere is festive and resembles a large reunion as friends and families reunite for the holidays. For the past 13 years, students home from college stumble out of bed, co-workers wearing company shirts gather for team pictures, and community members pose in front of selfie-stations to post pictures of Visalia Emergency Aid Council’s (VEAC) premier fundraising event to fight hunger in our community.
What started as a small group of community advocates gathering in the SaveMart shopping center parking lot to raise funds for our local food pantry has now blossomed into an annual tradition for many families, schools, churches, and local businesses. The event costs are fully sponsored by local businesses, including our locally owned Food4Less, which has been a major sponsor for more than 10 years. When asked how Food4Less became a major sponsor of the event, Tom Gong, president of the local franchise stated, “Iris East, the race director, approached us many years ago to get involved in the race. [The race] has been a great way for our business to give back to the community. Our family has been part of Visalia since 1940 and we believe it is important to support the less fortunate. We are happy to be part of this event which benefits so many locally.” On a day which typically represents families gathered around a table overflowing with food, the Race Against Hunger highlights the sad truth that many in our community are struggling just to get by.
VEAC’s rich history began in 1931 as the Visalia Relief Council. A group of concerned citizens were looking for a way to coordinate the relief efforts for the many families migrating to the fertile San Joaquin Valley during the Dust Bowl era. Many of these families came to the valley seeking work and a new beginning. Minutes from meetings as early as 1935 indicate many of Visalia’s founding families participated in the early years of the Visalia Welfare Council (as it was later named). Such names as Hiram Mitchell (Buckman-Mitchell Insurance), Peter Perkins, Maxine and Dud Hadley, Frank Serpa, and Dr. Wesley and Kathy Price, have all served on the board of VEAC throughout the decades.
VEAC remains committed to providing a reliable source of food and support for the 1,100 families who seek assistance each month at our North Visalia pantry or two mobile pantries. VEAC receives no government funding for staffing or operations; as a private non-profit, VEAC relies on the generosity of our donors to keep the electricity on for food storage, paying staffing costs, and keeping our facilities in safe, working order. Our partner food banks, Community Food Bank of Central California and FoodLink of Tulare County, serve a vital role in providing a large quantity of free or reduced-cost food to be distributed from our pantry. As a Feeding America affiliate, volunteers make daily rounds to local supermarkets for donations of quality food which goes out to our clients. More than 35 percent of our clients are employed, many working minimum wage jobs and struggling to get by. Our average client visits the pantry four to five times per year, but many just once per year to sign up for our holiday food basket program. The cost of a full holiday meal is very difficult for many who exist from check to check, a privilege many of us take for granted. VEAC staff works tirelessly to keep the pantry shelves stocked, upgrade the aging food pantry facility, and maintain the community investment in our thrift store so families may gather around the table to share a meal at home.
Hunger Hurts Us All
Lines often form out the door of our 1940s adobe brick-and-mortar pantry toward the end of each month as family funds begin to dwindle, or during the long winter school break when free breakfast and lunch are no longer available for children in the Visalia Unified School District. It seems ironic that one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions is also classified as a food “desert” fancy term for the fact that parts of the county lack nearby grocery stores or access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthful, whole foods. As the largest food pantry in Tulare County, VEAC distributed over one million pounds of supplemental, nutritious groceries to more than 10,000 households in 2016. For many, this safety net eliminated the need to choose between paying the rent, buying gas to make it to work, or feeding the family.
The stress of food “insecurity” on the family has been well documented and researched. Type “hungry children in the United States” in your Internet search engine and you’ll find countless research articles on the topic of hunger in the U.S. Studies confirm children without a reliable source of food are negatively impacted in many areas of their growth and development. In addition, research also points to a direct correlation between adult criminal behavior and childhood hunger.
Part of a Larger Community
VEAC partners with many other agencies to provide services for families in need. Family HealthCare Network sponsors a monthly mobile pantry at their Goshen clinic (in coordination with VEAC and Community Food Bank) to bring fresh seasonal produce and food staples such as beans and rice, to more than 150 low-income families. A similar partnership exists in Ivanhoe with Walnut Grove Assembly of God Church. The Kaweah Delta Health Care District Bridge Program provides food from our pantry to high-risk discharge patients who may not have a support system at home by providing a basic supply of food so the patient can spend those first few days after hospitalization recuperating rather than worrying about food.
Our thrift store, which is a key component in many of our outreach efforts, allows VEAC to provide free clothing and household items to our families and other agencies. We work with Family Services of Tulare County to provide clothing for women and children fleeing domestic violence, interview clothing for ABLE Industries clients, court clothing for victims of crime who must testify against their offenders, and many requests from staff at Visalia Unified School District for children’s clothing, backpacks and shoes. Local law enforcement, churches, and civic groups know they can count on VEAC to provide free clothing, household items, and food to low-income families. It is through these partnerships that VEAC maximizes your donations and serves a larger need in our community.
Long Range Plan
The VEAC Board of Directors and staff have identified the replacement of the aging food pantry as a critical need. The food pantry was originally built in the 1940s as a Division of Forestry station. After several renovations and varying uses by public agencies, the property was sold to VEAC by the City of Visalia in 1972. At the time, VEAC served around 150 low-income families per month. The adobe brick-and-mortar building has served VEAC well for almost 50 years, but we have simply outgrown our present facility and struggle to keep up with on-going maintenance. The aging building lacks necessary infrastructure to support our current service levels. The family services lobby is small and cramped, and families often line up out the door. Lack of heating and air conditioning make the pantry a very uncomfortable place to volunteer during the cool winters and hot summers. VEAC plans to remain in the same location and invest in the revitalization of the neighborhood by building a new, modest pantry capable of serving the community for many years to come.
How To Help
Volunteers are a key when it comes to operating our food pantry and thrift store. In 2016, more than 1,000 volunteers logged 18,000 hours of service between our two locations. It is only through the commitment of our volunteers that we are able to serve so many in our community.
You can help in many different, important ways:
- Form a team for the Race Against Hunger. Each registration of $30 goes directly toward the food pantry.
- Host the Turkey Transit singers at your business, civic group, or school to raise money for our holiday baskets.
- Host a canned food or turkey drive.
- Donate your gently used clothing and household items to our thrift store, located at 620 W. Houston. The store is open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m-7 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free pickup of your donations can be arranged by scheduling with staff by calling (559) 635-8525, or items can be dropped off at our store between 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.
- Volunteer! It takes a tremendous amount of manpower to process the large volume of donations that come through our thrift store each day. Perhaps you have a knack for displays, don’t mind sorting through donations to find a hidden treasure, or simply want to help us keep our store organized— we can use you! Go to www.veac.org and click on the “how to help” tab to register.
- Assist financially. Consider becoming a monthly donor, leaving a portion of your estate to the pantry, or giving a one-time gift. As a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, your financial donations are tax-deductible.
If you would like to learn more about our organization, visit us at www.veac.org, or call (559) 732-0101.