By Ruth Gadebusch
Not a day goes by that we don’t hear something about the overwhelming homeless tragedy. However, there is another group not so visible among us. That is the many families who still put on a good face to the public but struggle every month to provide food for their families. These are our neighbors right here in the San Joaquin Valley, not someone living around the exhausted mines of West Virginia or the deserted rusty factories of the Midwest or freezing New England.
This more “month than money” doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves given the devastating impact on those so affected. All the more heartbreaking is that we live in the area known as the breadbasket of the world. Yes, we feed a huge percentage of not just this nation but the world. Yet, we have hunger in our midst.
Yes, we have the Food Bank and, yes, our media features many well-meaning citizens making an all-out effort to provide special holiday meals for the needy, but there are about 350 other days of the year. Poverello House, church groups and others such as Sunday in the Park operate throughout the year. There are school programs often not available when schools are closed. And none are like a family eating together in their home.
None of this is enough for the working poor, some of whom might live right down the street from you or me, but pride prevents them from letting us know. If you need proof, I would like to highlight an effort by my church, the First Congregational Church of Fresno.
The church is located in the Fresno High School neighborhood, which is considered the typical vaunted middle class of our nation. In such neighborhoods, the majority have jobs, their children regularly attend schools and their yards mostly look respectable. Surely, they eat well with no one going hungry. Not so well as we once thought!
It has long been recognized that any effort devoted to a good cause must have a person of passion if it is to thrive. Along came Randy Oftedal, a retired food service representative, who took to heart a study done by the Big Red Church.
New Beginnings confirmed what we suspected: The neighborhood was not the same as when the church was built there in 1949. It was clear that things are not always so shiny behind those closed doors.
In May 2017, Oftedal gathered dedicated friends, prevailed on his connections in the food service world and began what most expected to be a small pantry to hand out a few staples to those in extreme need.
The first distribution was made to eight families on Dec. 28 of that year. On Jan. 31, 2020, just two years and one month later, food bags were given to 74 families covering 294 individuals! From eight to 74!
In March 2018, service was added for 12 families (246 individuals) of the Head Start program, which is operated in the church facility. In addition to food purchased from regular grocery stores this past year, $7,352.04 worth of food came from the Central California Food Bank, which had joined the effort early on.
Wow! Don’t those numbers demonstrate the need? The longtime heavy public use of the Big Red Church leaves it bursting at the seams to accommodate Free Food Friday (FFF). No questions asked as to need. No one is paid. Volunteers do it all. With the donation of a commercial-sized refrigerator, fresh food is now included.
In addition to the FFF, 436 “Congregation Bags” have been distributed. These bags are filled with an easy-to-open can of pasta, water, a fruit cup and a snack bar; eating utensils are kept in the car to hand out to needy people on the streets. Recognizing that food alone is insufficient, a free children’s library is now included on the FFF, along with a table filled with information on resources available in the community.
To educate about the need and increase resources for support, the church works with groups including the Boy and Girl scouts, Poverello House, Fresno High School, Holiday Meal Give Away and others.
Of course, money is a necessity; therefore fund-raisers are held periodically with a special evening event forthcoming on March 13. At first thought it might seem just a bit sinful, a little contrary to raise money for food for the needy with a delightful evening with gourmet food, but it is Friday the 13th—superstitious or not—and the proceeds help to fill many empty stomachs in our own community.
The Oftedal family has again stepped up with a terrific dinner well beyond the usual church casseroles. Then there is professional entertainment. Last time, it was a member of the Oftedal family as was the cook. If you have missed the previous events, you have an opportunity at the Pot O’ Gold on March 13. Some of you might enjoy reminiscing with your long-ago elementary teacher Judy Oftedal.
Come to be part of something good in this all-too-often troubled world as you mingle with the wonderful volunteers who maintain this project. Too numerous to name but then they don’t do it for recognition. They do it because helping the less fortunate is the right thing to do. It will be the most exhilarating Friday the 13th you’ve ever spent.
Ruth Gadebusch, a former naval officer, was recently recognized by the League of Women Voters with its Lipton Award for volunteer work in various community endeavors. She was elected four times to the Fresno Unified School District Board, appointed by Governor George Deukmejian to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and is an emeritus member of the Board of the Center for Civic Education.