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Community Sharing Numbers Growing
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Oakdale Community Sharing volunteer Mark Vasko puts boxes of day-old pastries from local bakeries on the assembly line on Dec. 30, getting ready for Dec. 31 distribution. Dawn M. Henley/The Leader

It’s 8 a.m. on Monday morning and a small, core group of volunteers at Oakdale Community Sharing have already accomplished a fair amount of work.

Volunteer Mark Vasko has done an early morning food pick up and Bill Schwartz is unloading the pallets from the back of the truck with the forklift. Inside the building – which is the old county public works maintenance yard warehouse – Ken Narita and Vasko are sorting like foods together and stacking them on the shelves to get ready for a Tuesday food distribution – which happens to be Dec. 31.

Closed only one Tuesday per year – the one during Christmas week – the Community Sharing volunteers are expecting a sizeable turnout, despite the cold, because it’s the end of the month when many of the people they serve have run out of food or food stamps and they are hungry.

“The number of recipients is pretty steady. We serve the most needy (persons) in Oakdale,” said Narita, Community Sharing’s board president.

He said that there were 200 to 230 families, or about 550 individuals, being steadily served each week. During Thanksgiving, that number shot up to 267 families. He said they expect the number of families to level out around 240 to 250.

“We thought with the economy improving that we’d see less (people), but we haven’t seen less,” he said.

Narita reported that there were about 170 families served weekly last year, and when he first began volunteering at Community Sharing six years ago, it was about 75 families per week.

“We’d like to go out of business but we don’t think that’s going to happen,” added volunteer Mark Vasko.

Vasko frequently drives the truck to pick up food. He said they get food from Con Agra, Frito Lay, Second Harvest, Salvation Army, local grocery stores and bakeries, and other companies, organizations, and individuals.

“You just have to go and do things when they need to be done, strike while the iron’s hot,” he said. “When the food is available, you have to go get that… We do new weekly menus based on what we’ve been able to get.”

He shared that they never know what they’ll get – potatoes, eggs, frozen dinners, different meats from the grocery stores. For example, they’ve picked up about 2,000 pounds of fresh potatoes for a month from Second Harvest. He added that they try to get what looks good and what appears to be nutritious because a good amount goes toward children’s breakfasts.

Narita added that they follow up on all the leads. Some food is donated and some is purchased at a greatly reduced price. They pay about 19 cents a pound for food, so for every dollar they get about five pounds worth of product.

A number of cattle throughout the year have also been donated from local farmers, which were then processed at House of Beef into hamburger to be distributed to the families. There’s also a focus on fresh produce. Narita said they try to get as many fresh products as possible. Partnering with Second Harvest helps them achieve that. In the winter, they get grapefruit, oranges, apples, broccoli, and cauliflower. They also get fresh summer produce as well.

On the menu for Dec. 31 is cereal, boxed milk, potatoes, vegetables, fruit, hamburger, margarine, bread, cheese, bacon, dry beans, cookies, and frozen dinners of chicken and pasta with broccoli. The next week’s menu, however, some different items may appear such as catsup, coffee, sloppy joe sauce, canned tomatoes, mini tacos, and a “mystery meat.” The mystery meat is an assortment of cuts and types of meat that are divided up amongst the boxes, where everyone may get something different. Additionally, when it’s someone’s birthday, the Community Sharing volunteers try to include a birthday cake for that family in their food box. Each family receives, on average, about 35 pounds of food per visit.

Due to the weight, the food is put into cardboard boxes for distribution because they hold up well. Narita said that the one thing they’re running low on right now is cardboard boxes. He reported that they had been getting boxes from a supplier but that resource has dwindled.

Narita said Oakdale’s elementary schools have helped by holding plastic and paper grocery bag drives. Community Sharing used to have to purchase the bags, which are used to package the bulk items into smaller portions before being added to the boxes.

During the holidays, many service groups, churches, schools, and individuals rally around Oakdale Community Sharing to provide monetary and in-kind donations. There are more canned goods donations during the holidays.

“Inventory is good right now but that can change rapidly,” Narita said. “…This will be the most (canned goods) we have during the winter.”

There are always ups and downs. In the spring and summer, the stock on canned goods goes down but that’s when they also try to focus on fresh produce, too.

According to literature from Community Sharing, in 2012 they provided enough food boxes to serve 9,119 families or 17,372 individuals. For 2013, the numbers aren’t finalized yet, but as of September, they had already given out over 7,500 boxes of food – each family gets a box. Narita said that the number of food boxes given out in 2013 will probably be about 12,000.

“We’re dependent on monetary and (product) donations,” Narita said, noting how generous people are in the community of Oakdale. “…Donations are important because we’re feeding many more folks.”

Plus, they always have to be ready for changes and to adapt. Narita noted how when food stamps were cut, it correlated with them seeing an uptick in the number of people needing food, and with unemployment benefits being cut he said they don’t know how that will affect the number of people coming for help to Community Sharing.

“We want to be able to sustain what we have so people have confidence and stability,” he said. “We never want to see a child go hungry.”

For example, Narita said if they have an increase of 50 families, that’s about 1,000 more goods per week they need.

“We give food to people who qualify. We don’t pass judgment,” Vasko said.

“The sad scenario is that this is very repetitive,” Narita said, adding that the original intent of food banks was for them to be an emergency food service but they have become a constant necessity.

Community Sharing started in 1957 and is run by a dedicated group of volunteers – some have been there for over 20 years. People must qualify to receive food through Community Sharing. The non-profit also has some clothing and shoes, and some small appliances to offer.

Donation drop offs and distribution times are on Tuesdays from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. For more information about donating, volunteering, or receiving services, contact Oakdale Community Sharing at 847-3401 and leave a message. To make a monetary donation, send checks to Oakdale Community Sharing, P.O. Box 1160, Oakdale, CA 95361.