They come on foot, by bicycle, in battered cars that hold their life’s belongings.
They are Silicon Valley’s hungry.
On weekday afternoons, they find their way to a Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen pickup site, like this one tucked away on a large nonprofit property in industrial North San Jose.
Here, away from judgmental eyes, cheerful volunteers greet them and load them up with as many hot meals and sack lunches as they need. No questions asked, no proof of income or eligibility required.
“We know if you’re coming to us, you need our help,” said CEO Gisela Bushey, who has documented the shocking growth in need, and the tragic impact the pandemic economy has had on the working poor and the homeless population. “In the richest region in the country, no one should go hungry.”
Yet more and more do.
“In 2019, we were doing 540,000 meals a year. By June 2020 we were at 1.2 million, by June of this year, 1.8 million,” she said, citing numbers that make Loaves & Fishes the largest prepared-meal distribution program in the Bay Area. “The need is dire. It’s worse than it’s ever been.”
By year’s end, she expects 2 million meals to have been served.
But the outcomes can be heartening for this highly efficient staff of 22 who, with just 10 or 12 volunteers a day, manage to cook, assemble and deliver thousands of meals to 135 locations in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
One former recipient who is paying it forward is Adrian Jaime, 40, who was paroled to Santa Clara County in 2018 after serving time for firearms possession. Determined to make a fresh start, he landed a job at Goodwill Industries and soon after discovered the free Loaves & Fishes meals.
“I would go every day for over a year when I first was homeless,” he said. “I’m in a better place now.”
These days, he works in construction and picks up Loaves & Fishes meals three times a week for the sober living facility he runs in East San Jose.
“It feeds a lot of my residents,” he said, loading 25 hot prepared dinners, 40 sack lunches and a few cases of water into his work truck. “They get out of incarceration with nothing. We’re grateful for what we get.”
And the experience has made him a confirmed volunteer. “Service is where it’s at,” he said.
Donations from Bay Area News Group readers via Wish Book would help Loaves & Fishes meet the unprecedented demand for hunger relief, particularly in the population of low-income children, who were an estimated one-third of the meal recipients in the most recent fiscal year. Because it costs the charity only $2.50 to prepare, deliver and serve each meal — “We shepherd our donor dollars down to the penny,” Bushey said — a $50,000 grant would pay for 20,000 meals.
And the need is growing, especially with pandemic-relief funds drying up.
Founded in 1980, Loaves & Fishes was a classic soup kitchen for its first 35 years. In what turned out to be a prescient move, the organization reinvented itself in 2015, putting its program on wheels. Meals are currently prepared at the group’s Morgan Hill kitchen facility, where the chefs pride themselves on recipes that are both nutritious and tasty; a larger central kitchen is under construction at the Berger Drive headquarters.
The food is delivered by a fleet of 11 temperature-controlled trucks to neighborhood locations where the need is great — community centers, schools, shelters, transitional housing, low-income senior retirement centers — and two centralized sites. Making these lunches and dinners easily accessible is important because “securing food is an all-consuming activity” for the homeless and the working poor, Bushey said.
Thanks to Loaves & Fishes, one elderly couple always knows where their next meal is coming from.
On this particular afternoon, they drove to the North San Jose site, as they have nearly every weekday for three years, and eased their bodies out of their older-model sedan.
Pain etched on their faces, they spoke a little about their situation but didn’t want to give their names.
Married for decades and 50-year residents of San Jose, they’ve been struggling since he suffered a heart attack. “I couldn’t get jobs or anything,” he said. Their home? “We lost it,” she said. They survive on a fixed income by living in their car.
The couple picked up dinners for themselves, for an ailing relative and for another homeless individual in the Capitol Expressway area where they stay. “We’re trying to save gas,” he explained, by consolidating the meal pickups.
As they headed back to the car, she nodded toward the Loaves & Fishes table. Her lined, weary face broke into a small smile.
“These people are so good.”
THE WISH BOOK SERIESWish Book is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization operated by The Mercury News. Since 1983, Wish Book has been producing series of stories during the holiday season that highlight the wishes of those in need and invite readers to help fulfill them.
WISHIt only costs Loaves & Fishes $2.50 to prepare, deliver, and serve each meal. A $50,000 grant will provide 20,000 meals to those in need. Goal: $50,000.
ONLINE EXTRARead other Wish Book stories, view photos and video at wishbook.mercurynews.com.
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Author: Linda Zavoral