LBCEI: Fresh Free Food, Volunteers Needed
By Dianne Anderson
Looking out over North, Central and West Long Beach where fresh green foods can be considered an anomaly, Emily Kazim is fully convinced that food insecurity has less to do with food deserts and more to do with food segregation.
After all, deserts are naturally occurring ecosystems.
“A lot of the issues we see with food access are not naturally occurring, there are things that are occurring that are planned and systemized. Even areas that might be considered food deserts or food segregated areas have grocery stores where a lot of times price gouging is going on,” said Kazim, executive director of the nonprofit, Long Beach Center for Economic Inclusion.
Every Wednesday, thanks to the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Food Forward, she receives about 9,000-15,000 pounds of fresh produce from the food clearinghouse of rescued produce, food that would otherwise go to waste.
From there, LBCEI supports a food pantry network of 10 neighborhood associations around the city, distributing resources to the most economically impacted areas. Food pantries run distribution on Monday or Wednesday, and those who want to volunteer can connect through their website at https://lbcei.org.
She doesn’t live where she works in North Long Beach, but she steers clear of the neighborhood grocery store where she knows many people must shop, even though the prices are sky high.
Especially now that CalFresh COVID benefits are drying up, the hit has been hard on the community and she sees more people seeking supplemental help from her organization’s food pantries. They rely on food banks to save money for their rent.
“When you measure that against inflation of food prices in general, it’s left a lot of families and individuals in difficult positions in finding ways to provide food for their households, or decide how they’re going to use their money,” she said.
The program can always use more volunteers, people who can load up to transport boxes of produce on Wednesdays when they have huge distributions to go out to local pantries.
“We work with a lot of pantries and groups that distribute food all over town. We always need volunteers in trucks. We’ll take any sized car people are willing to put boxes of produce in their car and deliver around Long Beach,” she said.
The distribution is a sight to be seen. Without cold storage, they work out of a defunct firehouse in North Long Beach, also the field office for District 9 Council. Despite limitations, she said they have an effective system and dedicated community volunteers. They also work with CSULB, making sure the food gets out.
“We get all that produce out within a few hours of receiving it, we do that through this network we’ve created with about 25 different organizations throughout the city who then distribute that produce to their pantries, churches and preschools,” she said.
Acquiring the food is one of the easier parts. They have a close relationship with Foodbank of Southern California and Food Forward sets aside pallets of food.
“They pick up and deliver the food for us, they bring the food to our site, unload it for us and we get it out to the community. I think of how amazing that we’re able to get the food out,” she said.
Participants with the pantry sort the food to get it ready and sometimes rescued produce may have some bad apples, but nothing goes to waste. They compost all that is unused.
At the LBCEI food pantry site, several other vital resources are offered to help boost economic inclusion. She said the organization tries to meet people where they are, whether they need jobs, or thinking of starting a small business, or even buying a first-time home.
This year, small business development is a big focus.
Long Beach has a robust small business network and business improvement districts, although so many have struggled through the pandemic and continue to struggle.
Supporting small businesses is a priority for their low to moderate-income areas, small family-owned businesses, and sole proprietorships that may be scraping by, but want to grow. She said different programs can help provide more resources to hopefully generate more revenue.
LBCEI, which started under the direction of then District 9 Councilman, Mayor Rex Richardson, serves underrepresented families, small businesses and low-income communities of North, Central and West Long Beach with food security, small business support, economic resiliency, technology, workforce and youth development.
Still, many in the community are scraping by day to day, with most of their food from food pantries around town. The center also supports their basic needs with access to diapers and dental hygiene products.
Some folks may be making ends meet, but judging by the amount of food going out, she said the pantry is an essential supplement in the struggle.
“Maybe they’re doing okay, but food is expensive and they’re trying to find ways to cut costs and budget elsewhere,” she said. “We try to meet people at every level, and the food pantries around town we support have really built trust within the communities that they’re located.”