Solidarity, not charity Caroline’s Pantry feeds the hungry, no questions asked

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By Kathryn McKenzie

Kara Lyman knows what it’s like to wait in line at a food bank. Fifteen years ago, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer while pregnant. Her health concerns forced her to close her business, declare bankruptcy, and for the first time in her life, she had to rely on public assistance.

“I was not well, and I had to stand in those lines,” waiting for handouts at the food bank while still wracked by the effects of chemotherapy. “It was hard, and I was humiliated.”

Now, Lyman is making sure that people in North Monterey County who are in need of food can get it, and she has formed a caring community that treats every person with dignity and respect.

And there are no lines.

On a recent gray morning, vehicles pulled up to a red shed on Lyman’s property in Prunedale, drivers hopping out to tote a wealth of fresh produce, bread, eggs, prepared deli foods and other items to the shed’s bins, racks and coolers. This takes place every Friday, first the stocking of the pantry, and later on, people coming with grocery bags to choose what they need for the week.

The food is free. No questions are asked, and no one has to prove they are in need. No one is turned away.

This is the home of Caroline’s Pantry, Inc., which Lyman founded. The 3-year-old nonprofit is now searching for a new site, since this property will go up for sale sometime this fall. Still, organizers are hopeful that a new place can be found.

The nonprofit has a simple yet unique mission: to transport food that would otherwise be thrown away to those who need it. Between 50 and 60 volunteers each week are involved at sites in North Monterey County and south Santa Clara County, feeding around 1,000 people a month — “a conservative estimate,” Lyman said.

“Sometimes, it’s just that there’s been a redesign of the packaging and because it’s old packaging, the item has to be pulled,” said Camilla Alkhassadeh, who recently took over as Caroline’s Pantry board president from Lyman. “We’re reclaiming what would have been dumpstered.”

What isn’t taken for human consumption is distributed to animal rescue organizations like Hidden Hills Ranch and Little Hill Sanctuary, as well as others who want to feed their chickens, pigs or goats. Anything still left over is composted. Packaging is recycled. The goal is zero waste.

Every day, Lyman said, grocery stores must throw out perfectly good food — it is about to exceed its sell-by date, for instance, or the order was too large, or other reasons not related to its viability. For the most part, this food ends up in landfills.

In an effort to combat food waste, and to get this valuable commodity to where it’s really needed, a local and national movement called food rescue — also called food recovery or food salvage — has risen. Yet it’s more difficult to accomplish than you would think. Corporate-owned grocery stores are reluctant to change established practices, and some worry about liability issues.

Lyman, though, is not in the habit of giving up. A tall woman with long wavy hair in a plaid shirt and rainbow-colored Crocs, she directs the action at the pantry, making sure to greet everyone as they arrive, volunteers and participants alike.

“I use what I have to the nth degree,” said Lyman, who grew up on this property and lives here with her family, including three grandchildren that she is raising. She recites her mantra: “I am enough. I have enough. I do enough. If I do my best, God does the rest.”

By some estimates, according to the nonprofit Feeding America, almost half the food grown, processed or transported in the United States is wasted — at least 72 billion pounds a year ends up in landfills and incinerators. One-fifth of U.S. landfill volume is taken up with food.

Not only does this represent a waste of the food itself, but also of resources used to grow, process and transport that food. And, more importantly, some of that bounty could be feeding people in need.

There is a movement around the Monterey Bay to reclaim usable food. For instance, Salinas-based Ag Against Hunger distributes millions of pounds of produce to local food programs, and at UC Santa Cruz, leftover food from dining halls and campus cafés is taken and distributed to students, just to name a few efforts.

Ag Against Hunger estimates that one in three Monterey County residents is food-insecure. In Santa Cruz County, a recent report found that 43 percent of food assistance needs were going unmet among households earning $50,000 or less, according to UC Santa Cruz Blum Center on Poverty, Social Enterprise and Participatory Governance, and Second Harvest Food Bank Santa Cruz County. When people don’t have access to nutritious food, they either go hungry, or turn to less expensive and less nourishing options, like fast food.

Part of the problem, too, is that people feel ashamed to accept help, according to Heather Bullock, director of the Blum Center. “Reducing the stigma associated with food assistance programs is crucial,” said Bullock.

That’s one of the ways in which Food Rescue Monterey County at Caroline’s Pantry is trying to make a difference, by creating a welcoming community around its services.

Lyman named the organization after her mother, Caroline Lyman, who was famous in her neighborhood for gleaning fields, canning surplus produce, and taking care of others by distributing extra food. “We always shared,” she said. “I had a good example.”

Both of Kara’s parents were known for their dedication to their community — her father Edward Lyman, a vocational ed teacher in Soledad, was one of the first board members of the Monterey Peninsula’s Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program, I-HELP.

Kara Lyman got involved in food rescue years ago, initially as a way to feed her livestock, but then realizing that much of what she was getting could help people, too.

Why have a neighborhood food pantry when there are large food banks in the county? Lyman says it comes down to flexibility and the ability to get food to where it’s needed in a timely fashion. A small organization is able to be more agile and to pick up and distribute items more quickly than a massive nonprofit.

Each week, Caroline’s Pantry volunteers drive to grocery stores and chain restaurants in Monterey County and Santa Clara County to pick up culled food that is still edible. The pantry has an agreement with certain establishments, such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks and El Pollo Loco locations to take the food away.

Because of this grassroots approach, perishable foods get to the people who need them while the food is still good to eat. Having neighborhood food distribution in rural areas such as Prunedale also helps people who don’t have reliable transportation.

Sometimes there is a lot of food to be picked up, and other times just a little. Lyman also buys staples from the Food Bank for Monterey County to supplement what is received from donating stores and restaurants.

“It’s hard to get a store,” said Lyman. “It’s taken me years to build this network.” What many stores and restaurants don’t realize is that there are tax credits available for donating food, and that as soon as the food is given away, they are released from any liability regarding its safety.

Volunteers drive the food to one of the four Caroline’s Pantry locations where it is sorted and distributed. Many of the volunteers are people in need, and they get first selection. Then other participants come in to shop, grocery bags in hand. They’re encouraged to pick only what they need for the week, so that nothing goes to waste.

Lyman says her aim is to make everyone feel comfortable. People are not waiting for handouts; they’re choosing what they want, as anyone would at a grocery store. If more than a few people show up at once, she has them sit down on the benches and patio furniture in her yard, so that no one is waiting in a line.

Supporters also donate clothing, household items, and even appliances to be given away to pantry participants. On this particular Friday, there’s a washer and dryer in the yard, available to whoever needs them.

Lyman greets everyone — most are regulars, although there are often new people as well. She knows many of their stories and their needs. Although everyone is friendly, most don’t want to be identified by their last names.

One woman, Sheila, breaks down and cries when she recalls her struggles in getting food and housing. “I owe everything to her,” she said of Lyman. “I was homeless, living out of garbage cans.” Since she’s been coming to the pantry, “I have never eaten so well.”

Ken, a senior, has nothing but praise for the program and for Lyman: “I’ve never seen her turn anybody away. She’s amazing.”

Hope Frei, one of the co-founders of the pantry, grew up in Prunedale and has known the Lyman family most of her life. She started taking the pantry’s offerings to help raise her five children, now ages 5 to 15, and has been a stalwart volunteer as well. On this particular day, she’s unloading items that she picked up at a Costco.

“Instead of spending money on my food bill, I put that money in my gas tank, and then I can feed my family and help feed a lot of other people, too,” said Frei, who is studying at Hartnell College to become a special ed teacher. “I like that option better.”

Another volunteer, Dena, picks out a box full of fresh produce for herself and her boyfriend. “There’s no way I could afford to buy this in a store,” she said. Unemployed for almost a year, she has been applying for jobs, to no avail.

Although North County housing costs are lower than much of the rest of the area, rents are climbing as more people have moved into the area to commute to jobs in Santa Cruz and San Jose. It’s tough to find an ordinary single-family home to rent for under $2,500 a month. As people pay more for rent, there’s less for food and other necessities.

Even if people can afford the rent or their house payment, they’re often at the outer edge of survival. “They don’t have enough money to feed their kids, or to provide the other things that kids need,” said Lyman. By having a free source of food, the family budget can be stretched just a little bit further.

There is more than enough food to feed everyone — it’s just finding the means with which to do it. And Lyman’s goal is to teach others how to set up neighborhood pantries like this one. Right now Caroline’s Pantry is available in Prunedale on Fridays and Castroville on Mondays; Lyman envisions a future where there could be many more.

“People need to be fed,” she said. “This is solidarity, not charity.”

Even when Lyman’s property is sold, she and Alkhassadeh are determined to carry on their mission.

“We’re prepared to do pop-ups, or whatever needs to be done,” Alkhassadeh said. “We’re looking at all the solutions.”

More information is available at the Caroline’s Pantry Facebook page.

Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites.