Loaves & Fishes continues altruistic work in new home

Loaves & Fishes dining room manager Debbie Gerlosky (at left), and program executive director David Gerson, display produce that will be served from the kitchen at Loaves & Fishes’ new location at 835 Ferry St., Martinez. (DONNA BETH WEILENMAN / Martinez Tribune)
Loaves & Fishes dining room manager Debbie Gerlosky (at left), and program executive director David Gerson, display produce that will be served from the kitchen at Loaves & Fishes’ new location at 835 Ferry St., Martinez. (DONNA BETH WEILENMAN / Martinez Tribune)
Martinez Tribune

MARTINEZ, Calif. – When neighbors of the former Martinez Odd Fellows Temple building learned that Loaves & Fishes would be moving its operation there from First Baptist Church at 1802 Alhambra Ave., they became worried.

The Martinez dining room of Loaves & Fishes is one of five in Contra Costa County that provides mid-day meals five days a week, primarily to low income individuals, and noone is turned away. The local dining room has been operating at least 20 years.

When the charity accepted a supporter’s offer to help it buy the building at 835 Ferry St. and announced its intent to move, representatives of the Martinez Senior Center worried that Loaves & Fishes clients would occupy the center’s parking lot or loiter around its building.

At least one Ferry Street property owner hired attorney Sandra Benabou to express concerns to the City Council that behavior believed connected to the organization’s clients when they ate at the church, would continue at the new Loaves & Fishes site.

She asked for more “teeth” in a proposed document that would outline city expectations for the charity and its patrons.

At one of several council meetings last year, Mayor Rob Schroder and Councilmembers AnaMarie Avila Farias and Lara DeLaney said they, too, had reservations about the move closer to the downtown.

However, they also noted that nothing in the Martinez Municipal Code or the city’s zoning ordinance gave them tools to block the change. The parcel is zoned for professional and administrative uses, and that includes public and private philanthropic and charitable, or eleemosynary, institutions.

After the several meetings last year on the topic, city officials and the charity agreed to a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that outlined the city’s expectations of behavior on the part of both Loaves & Fishes staff as well as the charity’s clients.

The agreement, however, is not binding. In fact, the document specifies that it creates no obligation for Loaves & Fishes to undertake the city’s expectations related to its operations, and stresses that none of the guidelines could lead to any claims of damages or remedies on behalf of either the charity or the city.

But since the charity started serving meals at its new home May 4, it has received few complaints. In fact, some former skeptics now have a cooperative relationship with Loaves & Fishes, executive director David Gerson said.

The move from Alhambra Avenue to Ferry Street primarily was financial, he said, although it allows more clients to walk to the charity’s dining room since it’s closer to low-income housing.

The charity had been paying about $3,000 a month gross rent to use the church to feed the hungry of Martinez, Gerson said. That was more than twice what the charity’s other sites pay, he said.

The church’s building gave the charity limited space in which to operate and no room for growth, so it began looking for other options. “The money is better spent owning something,” Gerson said.

For the past two years, the charity worked with city officials and Martinez Police in hopes of finding a new site closer to its clients and the Martinez downtown area.

Finally, a member of the Loaves & Fishes board, David Deutscher, who owns a Pleasant Hill-based property management and commercial real estate company, helped the charity narrow its choices to the old Odd Fellows Temple.

Through his trust, Deutscher acquired the building on the charity’s behalf, allowing Loaves & Fishes to raise money for remodeling. “The building hadn’t been touched in decades,” Gerson said.

His organization raised $400,000 and spent $350,000 of that to rehabilitate the building it began leasing from the trust. Among donors were the Lesher Foundation and the Thomas J. Long Foundation, which gave $100,000 each.

Loaves & Fishes has an agreement to acquire the building from Deutscher’s trust, which is selling it to the charity at no profit. Gerson said he expects Loaves & Fishes to own the building within a year.

He said the MOU with Martinez differs little from the pact the charity had with the city when it operated in the First Baptist Church.

“It’s nonbinding, but it sets parameters,” Gerson said. The new MOU addresses hours, requires the presence of a security person and defines where people should and shouldn’t gather while waiting for meal preparation.

According to the MOU, meals can be served weekdays from 11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. and the charity’s daily pantry program can operate at the same time as its meal service.

It asks that patrons refrain from lining up outside, except for standing single file in specific designated areas once the interior waiting area is full. It discourages loitering in the public right of way or at surrounding properties.

Clients aren’t supposed to use drugs, tobacco or alcohol on the premises, nor are they allowed to carry weapons of any kind while they are on Loaves & Fishes property. They aren’t supposed to play music or cause disturbances there or at neighboring properties, and they’re expected to behave with respect toward other clients, staff, volunteers and the charity’s neighbors.

The charity must give patrons a place to store their belongings and provide a rack for parking bicycles.

Loaves & Fishes is expected to provide a reception area where patrons can wait before the meal is served, and restrooms for clients’ use. Patrons are expected to use those restrooms when the charity is open. The charity’s patrons and staff aren’t supposed to park in the Senior Center parking lot.

Those who fail to observe the charity’s rules may be refused service, the MOU states.

Loaves & Fishes is expected to have at least two employees, a dining room manager and a security guard, on the premises from 15 minutes before meal service until 15 minutes after the meal service hours conclude. Among other security measures mentioned in the MOU are an alarm system and motion-detecting lighting on the building’s exterior.

The building’s exterior and any trash are expected to be kept up, the MOU says, and receptacles are expected to be emptied regularly.

“We’re committed to being a good neighbor,” Gerson said. “We have had no real issues. It’s been pretty smooth.”

He said the relationship with those associated with the Martinez Senior Center is an example of how the charity has been earning support from skeptics.

When Loaves & Fishes staff know they won’t be able to distribute donated food fast enough, it shares such items as bread and produce with those at the senior center. Gerson said he recently learned that center members have said they want to volunteer at least once a month at Loaves & Fishes.

Tom Borman, a member of the Senior Center board, chose to describe his own personal observation about Loaves & Fishes, rather than speak for the board or the center.

“From my point of view, it’s going well,” he said. “There are no problems I’ve been made aware of.”

He said the charity has been providing help to those in need. At the same time, from his perspective, it’s been abiding by the MOU.

“There has been no one in our parking lot, and no one has bothered anyone,” he said. “It’s a good story.”

Benabou said she hasn’t spoken to her client in detail recently about the charity, and had no comment about its operations.

Assistant City Manager Alan Shear was acting city manager when city staff, the City Council and the charity hammered out its MOU, an endeavor that took months before its approval late in 2014.

He said he has heard the same opinions from others as those expressed by Borman.

“It’s worked out the way it’s described,” he said, explaining that Gerson told city employees, “We’ll work with you.”
Since then, Shear said, Loaves & Fishes “has not had any unnecessary impact” on neighbors or the rest of the city’s downtown area. Instead, he said, it’s been helpful, particularly to older residents.

Regarding the MOU, Shear said, “They’ve been true to their word.”

Loaves & Fishes began 30 years ago in Pittsburg, where some people noticed others trying to find food in large garbage bins.

The first volunteers collected food and handed it out from a station wagon. From there, it grew into a county-wide nonprofit organization that has five sites that have served more than 4 million meals in Contra Costa County since 1983 and averages more than 170,000 meals each year. Besides Martinez, Loaves & Fishes has dining rooms in Antioch, Bay Point, Oakley and Pittsburg.

The Martinez kitchen, under the direction of dining room manager and Martinez resident Debbie Gerlosky, serves meals to 125-130 individuals and families Mondays through Fridays, Gerson said. Those numbers are increasing since the charity has moved closer to its clients, he said.

About a third of the patrons have no regular home, based on a survey Gerson takes every two years. Some clients come from Pacheco and Concord.

But that means the majority of meals are served to Martinez residents who can’t make ends meet, he said. Some have jobs, and show up to Loaves & Fishes wearing their companies’ shirts.

“It’s a misconception that all are homeless. They come from all walks of life,” he said, listing the homeless, the employed and the elderly. Older residents, those 55 and older, make up more than half of those who visit the charity’s dining room, he said.

He calls them “our senior class,” and said they are particularly vulnerable when the price a dozen eggs or a gallon of milk jumps up a dollar or two. “They are a class of people on a fixed income, and as costs go up, they have needs that are not met. They can’t afford rent, utilities and food,” he said.

Others clients are families. “Times are rough, and costs are extremely high,” he said. “People need to stretch dollars. This supplements whatever income they have, and gives them a hot meal and food to take home.”

He said many clients spend 40 to 50 percent of their income on housing. By the time other bills are paid, they don’t have much left for food. Besides the meals themselves, Loaves & Fishes clients can take home bread, produce and other food that has come from several sources, including Lucky’s and Safeway supermarkets that drop off supplies twice a week.

The lunches give clients a sense of community, too, Gerson said. “They meet with friends, catch up and chat. And they are welcome to do that. People feel comfortable and safe, and if there is no bad behavior and there is respect, they are welcome.”

The lunch room usually provides the food and a safe place to eat. At Christmas, diners get entertained by volunteers who come by to sing carols.

Loaves & Fishes is a place where diners can learn about some other services for which they may qualify.

The charity is a distribution center for the Food Bank of Contra Costa. It’s a place where qualified people can sign up for CalFresh, the California version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program (SNAP) that gives people monthly supplements to be spent on food.

Then there are the volunteers who use Loaves & Fishes as a place to contribute their own skills, such as a hairdresser who periodically provides free haircuts at her portable salon station.

Loaves & Fishes has established or is working to establish relationships with other services, such as SHELTER Inc. of Contra Costa, the Concord-based agency that reaches out in particular to homeless veterans, and to Community Wellness and Prevention of Contra Costa County Health Services, so speakers can talk to clients about nutrition.

In the next few days, a speaker from Assurance Wireless, a state program that provides Virgin Mobile cellular phones so low-income people can keep in contract with state programs, emergency services and others, will visit.

Loaves & Fishes also works with Doug Stewart of Contra Costa Homeless Outreach, also based in Concord, to help those who need affordable housing, legal aid and other services, as well as with Contra Costa Behavioral Health Services, which helps those who are dealing with mental illness.

The building isn’t used to serve meals on weekends. Gerson said the hall and its large commercial kitchen can be rented on those days for private events. Loaves & Fishes has been rented out for baby showers and family memorials. Those rentals, Gerson said, help the charity pay for what eventually will be its mortgage.

Out front, the building is landscaped by the Martinez Shell Refinery, with vegetables. Instead of roses or ivy, passersby see a raised bed full of pepper, tomato, squash and other plants that are tenderly cultivated by one of the Loaves & Fishes clients named Barbara, Gerson said.

It’s a community garden that grows produce anyone may harvest, with just one request from Gerson: “Take what you need, and leave some for others.”

On the horizon is the opportunity to use the kitchen as a culinary training site with the cooperation of Sally Van Slyke of Lafayette, who founded Wild Thyme Catering & Event Management in Walnut Creek, Gerson said.

“She’ll head up an eight-week program headquartered here,” he said. Classes would be small, consisting of eight to 10, and would be offered three times a year, with time in between used to help graduates find employment.

Among the students would be emancipated youth in foster care, alternative high school students and those in juvenile hall – youth who have some type of case managers.

Besides learning about food preparation in the free classes, they would also learn life skills so they would understand the business end and how to be good employees who can hold jobs.

“We’ve gotten good feedback,” Gerson said, adding that Y & H Soda Foundation in Moraga has given Loaves & Fishes a soft commitment for the school. He said he hopes the inaugural pilot course will take place in 2016.

Another future goal is to make Loaves & Fishes a nerve center for services to those with low incomes, working in conjunction with other agencies in the county to help patrons with housing, jobs through job fairs, mental health care and other needs.

To that end, Gerson said, his agency would need to hire a client services outreach coordinator who would work not only in Martinez but at all the Loaves & Fishes dining rooms.

It’s a worthy goal that would help many Martinez residents, he said. “But I have to find funding.”

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