Small Pantry Gives Big
When Beth Yale and Julia Newman met more than six decades ago in their Sunland-Tujunga, Calif., neighborhood, the 2-year-olds had no idea they were destined for a shared life of volunteerism.
Now 64, the two women – who epitomize the phrase "best friends forever" – run the Somis Pantry, a food distribution center serving local families in need.
It began in 1989, when Newman moved to Somis and, with assistance from friends and family, began delivering Thanksgiving food baskets to area families in need.
Newman wanted donors to form one-on-one connections with the recipients, so the people who sponsored each family delivered the baskets themselves, often in inclement weather and on unpaved roads. Yale, who became a Somis resident 13 years ago, joined her friend on her mission to serve the community.
"It was a beloved thing that went on for many years," says Newman. "Then, in 2008, Beth and I were out bumping around on the back roads, and we thought it was really nice what we were doing, but these people are hungry all the time. So we thought it'd be great if we could do something on a regular basis."
Because they received the list of families from local schools, the pair spoke with the Somis Union School District's then-superintendent, who connected them with the Boys and Girls Club, which had a portable building with a few extra cabinets to store food. Starting with 25 families to feed, the pantry was established, distributing food the second Tuesday of each month.
Soon afterward, when Temple Ner Ami in Camarillo posted donor information for the pantry in its newsletter, Yale and Newman received a call from FOOD Share, a Ventura County–based food bank.
"Somis Pantry is a special member of the FOOD Share network," says Susan Haverland, vice president programs & services at FOOD Share, Inc.
"Many people assume that Somis is an affluent community, not knowing there is a sizeable population of low-income families living there, too."
The FOOD Share affiliation mean that the Somis Pantry, which now has its distribution center at Faith Baptist Church in Somis, would receive additional food items directly from FOOD Share.
"It started to grow exponentially, at 80 families (as of December), which is 350 to 400 people," says Neman. "We give out five bags of food – a dairy bag with milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs; a meat bag with four to five types of meat; fresh vegetables and fruit; dry goods with cereals, soups, canned items, peanut butter, bread and baked goods. This enables them to have maybe a week or so worth of food."
Haverland adds that Yale and Newman customize each family's bag so that they get the right amount of food to meet their needs. Though the pantry receives food from FOOD Share, it is still in great need of monetary donations to purchase additional items. Yale,
Newman says admiringly, is a whiz at shopping for bargains in bulk. "Beth's negotiation and shopping skills can make a dollar go farther," says Newman. "Her work ethic and abilities are really what gets us the amount of food to distribute. She visits FOOD Share three days a week, but also drives around to local stores and works out deals with managers on food and other items."
In 2010 this dedication earned Yale the prestigious Jefferson Award from the American Institute for Public Service, which honors volunteers who commit themselves to community and public service. "We run like a little organization and we give like a big organization," says Newman.
On distribution days, their volunteer staffhands out food like a finely tuned machine, assisting those on their list with efficiency and teamwork, while still taking a few minutes to talk to the walk-ins they inevitably receive.
"Beth and Julia and their volunteers greet each family by name, with hugs and concern, and they tirelessly advocate for the well-being of 'their' families," says Haverland."
The food pantry's families "are hardworking people who can't make enough money to pay rent, pay for gasoline, feed their families on their earnings – but the majority of the people, if you met them on the street, you wouldn't know they're suffering," adds Yale.
The pantry's demographic has evolved from low-income families to include farmworkers, single parents, those who are unemployed or have recently lost jobs and, increasingly, senior citizens.
"Our hope is people will start going back to work and there will be fewer individuals in need," says Yale. "And there can be a retraining of people so that they're put back into feeling that they're valuable and that they can take care of their families."
The Somis Pantry appreciates monetary donations, which can be sent to Somis Pantry, P.O. Box 119, Somis, CA 93066. Donors will receive a letter acknowledging their gift s. To contact Somis Pantry, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Food donations are accepted at Temple Ner Ami, 515 Temple Ave., Camarillo. Families in need, call 211 or FOOD Share at 805-983-7100.