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Note: This was written at the end of July 2015, two weeks after I joined the Community Food Bank team.

First impressions are important, but after nearly two weeks with the Community Food Bank of San Benito County, I’m happy to report that my positive first impression has been supplanted by a more lasting impression.

My growing impression is one that captures all the joys and challenges that go with doing meaningful work, right where we live. It’s one of wonder at how far Community Food Bank reaches into San Benito County. It’s an impression of how the amazing cadre of volunteers and the constantly smiling staff pull off the small miracles that happen here every day.

I have learned that it’s a story that can be told in numbers: fully 92 percent of every dollar that flows through Community Food Bank goes directly to our clients. Last year, 3,600 local residents were served each week through the Food Bank Pantry. Weekly Brown Bags went to 408 seniors in March of this year. An average of 236 local children received food backpacks every Friday through the 2014-15 school year. Food Bank provides groceries to other agencies, allowing them to feed an additional 1,000 people a month.

It’s been an education. I didn’t know that the Food Bank performs distribution at sites all over San Benito County, in places as far flung as Panoche and Aromas. I really did not understand the network of generosity that keeps the Food Bank open. From cash donations, to direct donation of food from growers and local grocers, the volume of groceries coming into and out of our doors each week is overwhelming. Churches and nonprofit organizations pitch in. It’s genuinely a community effort, and it should be a source of justifiable pride to know that in San Benito County, we take care of our own.

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Just as overwhelming is the need. Food insecurity is defined as limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods, and 26 percent of the children in San Benito County still live with food insecurity. Thirty-four percent of the seniors in San Benito County report that they do not have enough money to purchase both groceries and their prescribed medications. It’s estimated that 4,357 families in San Benito County who are eligible to receive CalFresh benefits – food stamps – are not in the program. If the program were to be fully subscribed, it would pump what’s estimated to be an additional $5.1 million into the local economy each year. Community Food Bank helps in this area, too, with outreach and assistance in enrolling in CalFresh.

But more than numbers, I’m coming to learn that Community Food Bank’s story is best told in faces, faces of the clients who stream through every Friday and Saturday, who are excited to see what the market basket will hold each week. The sincerity of clients’ gratitude is a reflection of their genuine appreciation for a little extra help. There are the faces of volunteers, who reflect the diversity of our community so well, from youth groups to church groups to tireless seniors. Their faces reflect the warmth and joy that sharing time and talent brings. Finally, there is the look that staff members universally wear. It’s one that captures energy, deep commitment and an understanding that by working together, we can accomplish so much more than we can by working apart.

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Mark Paxton is director of community engagement and fund development at Community Food Bank. In his spare time, he enjoys being outdoors with his wife, Mary. They are the parents of two daughters and live in Hollister.

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