.Pajaro Valley Loaves and Fishes Provides Lunch and Much More to Those in Need

The Watsonville organization is one of 10 local food-centric nonprofits participating in Santa Cruz Gives this year

In 2020, when the team at Pajaro Valley Loaves and Fishes first heard the news about the pandemic and watched as food pantries shuttered their doors across the valley, there was an understanding within the small team: they would remain open. 

“We were open that day, and the day after and haven’t closed our doors since,” says Ashley Bridges, director of Loaves and Fishes. 

Loaves and Fishes is just one of the food-focused organizations participating in the Santa Cruz Gives fundraiser. The program functions as a food pantry, serving lunch every day of the week, and also offering produce and groceries to people in need. Staffers from nearly all of the organizations that address food insecurity expressed that recent inflation has made providing services more costly, and the need for assistance more pressing.    

Because of its location in Watsonville, Loaves and Fishes mainly sees Latinx workers in the agriculture industry coming in for hot meals and fresh produce during the week. The group says 90% of its clients are Latinx, 65% work in agriculture and about 10% of all clients are unsheltered. 

Bridges says these populations are still reeling from Covid-induced financial losses and setbacks, and the timing of inflation and skyrocketing gas prices has only compounded these hardships.    

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During the first months of the pandemic, the pantry saw a historical 20% increase in demand for services. That demand has held steady since 2020, and only recently has slowed to rates closer to pre-pandemic levels. In the past year alone, the program has served 34,000 meals, and the pantry has seen 15,000 visits, with about 9,000 families that use the pantry’s services. 

“People generally know that farmworkers have it tough, but they don’t actually know the level of poverty migrant farmworkers are living in,” says Bridges. “It’s not even just people living under the poverty line, too. It’s just tough to live here.” 

About 90% of the organization’s budget is made up through donations. Since the pandemic, all lunches have been held outside, but the organization is gearing up to reopen its indoor dining services, which Bridges says is almost as important as the food itself: it gives people a safe place to eat, and fosters community. That’s what the organization plans to fund with the money raised from Santa Cruz Gives. 

“We live in a society that isn’t just and equal, and until we get there, there will always be a need for services like Loaves and Fishes,” says Bridges. “When people don’t have anywhere else to turn, they are welcome at Loaves and Fishes.” 

Teen Kitchen Project 

For people suffering from life-threatening illnesses like cancer, exhaustion can be debilitating. Often, that exhaustion can be felt throughout a whole family. 

In 2011, Angela Farley’s son was diagnosed with a rare lung cancer. During his treatment, friends and family brought home-cooked meals to help keep Farley’s family nourished.

Farley witnessed first-hand how much time and energy these meals saved her family; after her son’s treatment was completed, she wanted to return the favor. 

That inspired the Teen Kitchen Project, which Farley founded in 2012. Farley wanted to relieve people of one difficult task while also supporting their health, and she knew that cooking nutritious meals could help with both. 

The Teen Kitchen Project cooks low-cost, medically tailored meals for the critically and chronically ill. Part of the emphasis is on making nutritious meals for those who might not otherwise have the access to people in the lower poverty levels. Farley says about 70% of the project’s clients are low-income, and according to intake surveys, those are also the people making frequent trips to the emergency room.

“Access to food allows you to be more compliant with your medications,” says Farley. “And all of our meals are diabetes-friendly and heart-healthy. So that means that they’re medically tailored to be responsive to people with specific needs. Having these types of prepared meals allows them to stay on top of their medication, stay hydrated, stay out of the ER and saves them and taxpayers money.”

While the project is centered around helping clients during illnesses, having teens working alongside the project is an essential component. Farley hopes that by educating teens and teaching them how to make healthy meals, they will maintain healthy habits outside of the program. She also sees firsthand how the teen volunteers and employees gain a sense of purpose through the work. 

“Before you’re an adult, people don’t trust you with just anything,” says Farley. “But at the project, we give you a knife, something super hot to cook. We’re gonna trust you with that. And they understand that what they’re doing is not just a job—they’re actually helping people.”   

Eventually, Farley hopes California will adopt medically tailored meals as part of healthcare plans. Chronic and diet-related illnesses, which include cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes, are among the leading causes of death in the United States, disproportionately affecting BIPOC and low-income communities.

Until then, Farley will continue to stretch the project budget to meet demand. Her team works throughout the holiday weeks, checking in on clients to ensure they have support. The project already holds free cooking classes for clients interested in making nutritious meals at home. The program is just starting to support people even further by shopping for medically tailored groceries for clients. 

“People tell us all the time that there’s no way they could have gotten home from the hospital and been able to eat this healthy,” says Farley. “Santa Cruz Gives is a wonderful opportunity for people to share their compassion for others and support free meal delivery for people who don’t have the resources to prepare this type of food for themselves.” 

Food Nonprofits Around the County

Here are the other organizations around the county making it their mission to make sure people don’t go hungry and have access to healthy produce and meals. 

Farm Discovery at Live Earth is a 150-acre patchwork of working organic farms in the Pajaro Valley. The organization works with low-income youth and families, to educate them on healthy food and sustainable farming. In 2021, the farm distributed 115,000 pounds of produce to low-income families, educated low-income youth on how to grow, cook and eat sustainably raised foods and hosted field trips for local schools. With funds from Santa Cruz Gives, the farm hopes to continue to grow and deliver organic food to those in the community who need it the most.   

Eat for the Earth educates children and families on how to eat more plants and fewer animal products. Funds from the Santa Cruz Gives campaign will go towards workshops, in both English and Spanish, that focus on nutrition education, mentorship and will provide resources to those interested in adopting plant-based diets.

The Grower-Shipper Foundation believes that the more educated the community is about local agriculture, the better its decisions about food and food policies will be. In 2023, the organization will focus on educating the community about “gleaning,” a process that collects excess produce left behind in the fields that might otherwise go to waste and delivers that produce to food banks and distributors who serve those in need. In 2023, the organization hopes to host four gleaning events, reach more volunteers and provide the community with 800 cartons of fresh produce.  

Most people will recognize Second Harvest Food Bank SCC by its name, because of the incredible work it has done locally to provide food for families since it was established in 1972. Second Harvest has a network of approximately 150 partner agencies and sites, making sure marginalized families have access to nutritious food. The food bank will use donations to continue to provide food for the 65,000 locals each month who depend on it.

Valley Churches United offers a food pantry and so much more for locals, including crisis rent, mortgage, utility and disaster assistance. The organization does not receive any government funding, so fundraising is critical. Currently, Valley Churches United provides 7,000 pounds of food to its clients annually, but it hopes to double that number and reach 15,000 pounds.

Sustainable Systems Research Foundation is a green think tank and project incubator in Santa Cruz. It plans to use funds from the campaign in a unique way: supporting Latinx farmers opening their own farms. According to the foundation, a growing number of Latinx farmworkers are transitioning to farm ownership, and the think tank wants to help. In partnership with other local agriculture organizations, the foundation will hold workshops designed to help increase productivity, conserve soil and water and earn greater profits targeted to new and experienced Latinx farmers.

Visit santacruzgives.org to donate and learn about all 63 participating nonprofits.


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Aiyana Moya
News Editor
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