Editor’s Note: Claudia Bonilla Keller is the chief executive of Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, which saw its revenue rise 38% to $26.3 million during the pandemic for the year ended June 30, 2021 as funding and donations rose to meet demand. It fell back to its normal level, around $18.3 million, for the year ended June 30, 2022, ranking it No. 34 on the Business Journal’s annual list of the largest nonprofits in Orange County.
Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County opened in 1983, originally as a program of Saint Vincent de Paul.
It was a time of prosperity, with economic increases during the 1980s, nearly 40% employment growth and a gross county product of $64 billion. Hunger wasn’t making headlines.
Yet, veiled by Orange County’s growing wealth, hunger lived in the shadows. So, we focused on feeding those in need, relying on food and financial donations from private citizens, businesses and grants.
Former Second Harvest Board Member and Executive Director Joe Schoeningh remembers, “There was a lot of dinged and dented canned food in those days.”
In the first year, we operated out of a humble, 10,000-square-foot former citrus packing warehouse in Orange. We had 53 partner agencies and distributed 2.7 million pounds of food to the community. We now have almost 300 partners and distribute over 36 million pounds.
On Oct. 24, 2023, we will commemorate our 40th anniversary of serving local children, seniors and working families with dignity, equity and consistency, thanks to underwriter Ralphs and Food4Less.
While we do not view our existence as a cause for celebration, we do celebrate the many partners, businesses, donors, volunteers, board members and staff who have helped us nourish the most vulnerable throughout population growth, economic shifts and a pandemic. Ours is a four-decade case study of innovation.
Our Evolving Mission
Second Harvest’s mission has evolved from responding to hunger in the community to proactively sourcing and distributing nutritious food (i.e., providing food and nutritional security). The motivation for this change was simple: Poor nutrition often leads to poor health outcomes.
We invested in the creation of a “cold chain” in 2022, when Second Harvest installed two cold docks and increased cold storage capacity to 14,550 square feet in our distribution center, which had relocated to Irvine in 2007. The “cold chain” maintains a consistent low temperature of perishable food from harvest or production to transportation and storage to distribution.
This keeps locally grown fresh produce and other nutritious items in peak condition for distribution to our 294 partners at 362 sites throughout Orange County.
By providing fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, dairy, whole grains and proteins, Second Harvest is setting up children, families and seniors for success in school, at work and in life—creating a foundation for community health.
Providing dignified, equitable and consistent access to nutritious food is not achievable alone. Our mission statement begins with, “In collaboration with our partners.”
While we’ve always adapted to meet the changing needs of the community, nothing tested us like COVID-19. School and business closures hit working families hard—sending demand for food to unprecedented levels while 150 of our partner distribution sites were forced to close.
With financial and other support from the OC business and philanthropic community, the county government and countless private citizens, as well as a lead COVID-relief gift from Harvesters, we moved quickly, adjusted daily and expanded the way we thought about partnerships.
Most visibly, we established weekly pop-up drive-thru food distributions at the Honda Center for 15 consecutive Saturdays serving thousands of cars each week, thanks to the help of 200-plus volunteers.
In 2021, still in the middle of the pandemic, three of the largest anti-hunger/anti-poverty organizations in OC, Second Harvest, Community Action Partnership of Orange County/OC Food Bank and Abound Food Care, came together to form the OC Hunger Alliance.
The Hunger Alliance mission is to optimize the emergency food system to address root causes of poverty. By pooling purchasing power, concentrating advocacy efforts and streamlining the movement of food, we’re increasing our impact.
We took a momentous step toward nutritional security in August 2021 by teaming with Solutions for Urban Agriculture (led by former Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture A.G. Kawamura) and the University of California South Coast Research and Extension Center (SCREC).
Together, we established the 40-acre, volunteer-supported Harvest Solutions Farm in Irvine, which generates up to 60,000 pounds of fresh produce each week and recently surpassed 4 million pounds of fresh produce harvested since its inception.
Also in 2021, we launched Founders Farm, thanks to the financial support of Bank of America and Harvesters. Located at SCREC, Founders Farm elevated grow boxes produce romaine lettuce for distribution by our Partner Network.
As an organization dedicated to the health and well-being of the community, Second Harvest is also focused on our environment, reducing food and other waste and diverting it from landfills.
We are the first food bank in the world to be awarded TRUE (Total Resource Use and Efficiency) certification for zero waste by the world’s leading sustainability and health certification organization, Green Business Certification Inc.
As a result of a nearly two-year process, Second Harvest improved its waste diversion from 60% to 95.2%.
Second Harvest’s Grocery Rescue program helps recover food from local grocery stores and get it into the hands of OC residents experiencing food insecurity. This program is expanding with a major grant from Feeding America and Walmart Foundation.
Today in OC, 1 in 12 individuals and 1 in 11 children is food insecure. Inflation continues to squeeze the budgets of working families. When Second Harvest was founded in 1983, food inflation was at 3%; it peaked at 11.4% in August 2022 and currently sits at 4.3%.
OC neighbors face the difficult trade-off of paying rent and other required bills or buying nutritious food for themselves and their families. Neighbors like Sandra, who works full time yet has almost no money left for groceries after she pays her family’s bills.
Sandra says, “Second Harvest is a lifeline for us. We’re able to access the type of healthy food through pantries that I simply cannot afford at the store.”
We become stronger together.
In FY 2023 alone, through our Partner Network, we distributed 36.3 million pounds of food to approximately 400,000 people each month in OC. This need persists.
Achieving our vision of an Orange County with food and nutritional security for all requires collective innovation and problem solving. We are grateful for continued partnership with the community to meet the needs of OC neighbors and we look forward to a time when we’re no longer needed.