By having a quick look at Tuesday’s program, we could easily have overlooked our visit to the “Yolo Food Bank”. This would have been a great mistake! Even though this week gave us an insight into many amazing high tech innovations, our visit at the Yolo Food Bank will probably remain as one of the most surprising and eye-opening events of the week.
At this point you may be wondering what a “food bank” is, but don’t worry, we (mainly the Swiss students) were in the same situation before our visit. Personally, I (Marc) was convinced that a food bank would be something similar to a “seed bank”. Thus you can guess how surprised I was when Kevin Sanchez, Executive Director of the Yolo Food Bank, explained to us what a “food bank” actually is: an organizational network that aims to feed food insecure people. These food banks are quite common in the USA and they won’t run out of work anytime soon. Food insecurity in the US is more widespread than you may think. For example, 1 out of 5 people in the Yolo County are considered food insecure; that’s mean that 20% of the population do not know where their next meal will come from. Some food banks limit their work to providing enough food to cover each person’s daily calorie requirements, but the Yolo Food Bank is quite different.
As Mr. Sanchez explained to us, “The Yolo Food Bank is a nutrition-focused food bank”. Its goal is not only to provide enough food, but to provide enough healthy food to the people it supports, and that makes a huge difference. The Yolo Food Bank relies on donations (in kind or monetary) from different donors (grocery stores, distribution centers, individuals, and of course farmers). In order to reach their healthy food goal, the Yolo Food Bank has begun rejecting donations of “junk food” (such as soft drinks). If necessary, they use the monetary donations to purchase complementary food items to provide healthy meals. Thanks to its location in a productive agricultural area, the Yolo Food Bank can rely on farmer donations of fresh and healthy products (e.g., from Capay Organic, one of the farms we visited). Today between 40% and 60% of the products delivered are fresh products.
But providing enough healthy and fresh food does not completely solve the problem. A lot of people are not used to the fresh products that Yolo Food Bank provides and lack knowledge to begin using them. This is exactly why the Yolo Food Bank offers cooking lessons in its one of a kind demo kitchen! During these cooking lessons participants learn to cook creative and innovative recipes with vegetables and other fresh products. There is also a big focus on recipes that the kids will also love. Kevin wants to give all kids the opportunity to eat healthy fresh food, and get them used to eating these foods while they’re young. He is thinking in the long term and hoping that in doing so the kids will have more time and energy to invest into other activities, most importantly school. Mr. Sanchez is convinced that this is one of the most powerful ways to help get these families out of poverty in the future.
In order to reach his goal (namely “close the meal gap and end hunger and malnutrition in the Yolo County”), Kevin continues to innovate and develop the food bank. He is currently working in collaboration with different partners, including the University of California, Davis. Together they are developing an app that could heavily improve the logistics of farmers’ donations. Furthermore, the Yolo Food Bank is also currently running End Hunger Yolo, the food bank’s first capital fundraising campaign to end hunger in Yolo County. These funds will allow them to invest in new and upgraded facilities that will, among other things, improve storage and processing of the foods they receive.
Even if the Yolo Food Bank is a non-profit organization, Kevin Sanchez recounts a lesson that we learned many times during our study tour: “You always need a business plan”. You could have the best intentions of the world and give it your all, but if you don’t have the foresight to make a business plan you will probably fail. As a highly motivated director, Kevin is convinced in Yolo County Food Bank’s mission and hopes that he can show that ending hunger and malnutrition is possible. If this works out, he aims then to spread his ideas around the world. The Yolo Food Bank is literally a “laboratory to feed the world”. Even without fancy, high tech innovation involved in this “laboratory”, it probably represents one of the most powerful solutions to tackle food system issues in the USA!
Blog authors: Marc Chautems and Alicia Julián Rodero are students at ETH Zurich and Kevin Madrigal is a student at Stanford University.
This study tour is part of ETH Meets California, a 10 day event organized by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) that brings some of its top researchers and students to California to unravel the mysteries of science and technology in an exchange of ideas with west coast counterparts in academia and industry.