Yolo Food Bank’s Trajectory Prioritizes Systemic Solutions to Food Equity

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Woman and child availing themselves of food assistance at Yolo Food Bank’s “Eat Well Yolo” distribution in Winters, CA.

Special to the Vanguard

After the most successful Big Day of Giving in the history of Yolo Food Bank resulting in the Food Bank raising a record-breaking $380,000 from over 700 donors, the organization is inspired to keep pursuing transformational change. 

“While topping the region-wide BDOG leaderboard is a Yolo Food Bank milestone, the positive impact this will have on the food insecure residents of Yolo County who are at the center of it all is truly what needs to be celebrated,” stated Yolo Food Bank Executive Director Michael Bisch. “This year’s Big Day of Giving marked a ceremonious launching point for our Flipping the Food System: Nourishing the Workers Who Nourish us initiative. More than 700 donors supported this initiative expressing confidence in the Food Bank’s ability to serve food system workers and their families.”

The Big Day of Giving isn’t the Food Bank’s only accomplishment. Under the transformative leadership of Executive Director Michael Bisch, the Food Bank has reached new heights garnering achievements year after year. In 2018 the Davis Chamber of Commerce named Bisch “Executive Director of the Year” and they selected the Food Bank “Nonprofit of the Year” in 2020 after essentially serving as first responders during the pandemic. Similarly, in 2019, the Woodland Chamber of Commerce awarded the Food Bank “Business of the Year.” And shortly after increasing the number of residents served via food distributions in the city of West Sacramento, the West Sacramento Chamber of Commerce in 2021 presented the Food Bank with a “Civic Leadership for Community” award. Other accomplishments worth noting include:

  • Leading an effective 5.1 million dollar second capital campaign in 2018 resulting in a 300% larger food recovery warehouse and operations facility
  • Elevating food security countywide by meeting the pandemic demand for food assistance that increased three-fold in a matter of weeks
  • Creating and implementing a new home delivery program during the pandemic 
  • Increasing staff compensation to living wages, and getting voted “Best Places to Work” in 2020 by the Sacramento Business Journals
  • Adding more than 250 new food access events at 25 distribution sites countywide via “Eat Well Yolo” program connecting residents to free, fresh food through walk-up and drive-thru distributions in 2021
  • Garnering public support from important dignitaries and elected leaders deeply committed to food security including UC Davis Chancellor Gary May, U.S. Congressman John Garamendi, U.S. Congresswoman Doris Matsui, U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson, and many others
  • Cultivating significant partnerships with entities working on innovative food security solutions such as the AI Institute for Food Systems and UC Innovation Institute for Food and Health

“ Leading Yolo Food Bank through tumultuous territory, increasing and maintaining services since the onset of the pandemic, and overcoming adversity throughout all of these years has been an absolute privilege,” declared Bisch. “I’m absolutely inspired by donors, volunteers, my staff, and our partners who collaborate day in and day out to serve our neighbors in need.”

Now, the Food Bank is finding itself once again designing and adapting programs and services to address the needs of another vulnerable population in Yolo County: food system workers. Playing a key role in this effort, and bringing with her a unique background in dietetics and public health coupled with program development and community health education, Genevieve Pyeatt has recently joined the Food Bank as Director of Programs. 

“I look forward to the work ahead as we embark on this journey toward transformational change to provide sustainable solutions to food and nutrition insecurity in Yolo County,” declared Yolo Food Bank Director of Programs Genevieve Pyeatt. “In order for our innovative programs to be impactful, meaningful, and relevant to those that need them most, we must continue to evaluate and conduct research that will inform our decision-making.” 

A county-wide research effort spearheaded by the Food Bank will be launching next month to deepen its understanding of the needs of vulnerable groups including essential food system workers, low-income seniors, and unhoused individuals.  The foundation for the Food Bank to shift its programming to a more systemic approach analyzing the underlying complex challenges of food security has been years in the making. 

A more recent snapshot of these efforts can be seen in actions the Food Bank has been taking thus far in 2022:

  • Refreshing its mission and vision to more directly contribute to residents’ long-term health outcomes
  • Announcing the Flipping the Food System initiative that will put the Food Bank on a path of food equity 
  • Drafting a nutrition policy to guide procurement decisions that will support individuals’ health and nutrition

Additional factors driving a focus towards more systemic and multifaceted solutions are the impacts the COVID-19 hunger relief emergency had on our local food system. Pre-existing food insecurity was exacerbated, and continuing socioeconomic disruption threatens opportunities for food access. 

“With inflation still on the rise more individuals and families are showing up to our food distributions in need of food assistance week after week. Demand is once again surging and is exceeding previous pandemic heights,” explained Bisch. “In the last 5 months, we’ve seen over a 55% increase in the number of residents seeking food assistance across our distributions. Yet, food supplies for food banks around the state are down upwards of 35% due to a decline in federal and local governmental pandemic assistance.”

“Investments in the Food Bank are vital and offer a future of increased availability of basic needs, better health outcomes, and enhanced economic opportunities as we collectively continue to navigate our way through the COVID-19 socioeconomic crisis,” shared Yolo Food Bank Director of Philanthropic Engagement Steven Loya. “Healthcare organizations, financial institutions, governmental partners, and dedicated private donors need to come together to make advancements possible for our community.”

With support from nonprofit partners, donors, volunteers, and community leaders, some of the actions the Food Bank is prioritizing include:

  • Embarking on a learning agenda including research, data collection, and analytical examination required to uncover the needs of food insecure residents
  • Elevating programs and services to ensure that fresh, healthy, high quality food regularly is available to more rural residents and underserved populations
  • Convening leaders and community members for the second “Food for Fairness Summit” that will tackle issues of nutrition security

“This year marks another critical turning point in the organization’s history, specifically as it relates to programs and services,” added Pyeatt. “All of the actions the Food Bank is involved in are informing the organization’s path towards becoming a learning organization so that we receive feedback on how to make the food we distribute more available at times, places, and in ways that offer dignity to participants. It will lead to a participatory planning process to include the perspectives and preferences of those who can benefit most from the food.”

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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