When planning my trip out here, one of the things I wanted to avoid happening was ending up spending 8 weeks or so surfing and then just being in the apartment on my own. I felt that it was important that as I had this fantastic opportunity I should make the very most of it, to get out and meet people and try and get involved in the community if possible. I wasn’t sure what that would entail or how I’d go about achieving it, but it seemed a sensible aim to have.
Ahead of travelling I looked on line for voluntary organisations in the San Clemente area who were looking for people to help out and found a couple of email addresses of potentials. I contacted them to say I was going to be in the area for 8-10 weeks March-May and I’d be available to work for them for some of the time I would be out there. The first to respond was a guy called Branden Earp who works for an organisation called Family Assistance Ministries (FAM) and who are based on a business park on the outskirts of town. Brandon replied to say that they were always looking for people to get involved and that they had a variety of activities coming up where I’d be welcome to assist and to get in touch when I had arrived. I also asked about work permits etc as I didn’t want to find myself on the wrong end of a Trump-inspired removal of undesireables, Branden looked into it and confirmed that as this was voluntary work with no pay etc then there would be no issue. All good.
Having arrived I got back in touch and went round for an orientation session at the FAM warehouse with some of the team working there. Essentially FAM provide assistance to families and single folk who are struggling to make ends meet in today’s America and sometimes need a helping hand to get back on their feet. This can be folk who’ve been made redundant and are between jobs with bills still to pay, people whose relationships have broken down and suddenly have no place to stay and folk on low incomes whose salaries don’t stretch quite far enough to cover all the monthly outgoings etc…
One of their primary operations is a large food bank which functions rather like a supermarket, whereby their clients come by and can get a huge range of everyday essentials. This covers fresh fruit and veg, through bread, cakes, biscuits, dairy and all the fish/meat types to frozen produce, as well as a full variety of non-perishable goods, which as pasta, rice, tinned food, jam and peanut butter. They also provide toiletries, nappies and other necessary household goods which everyone needs in order to live a normal life. All of these are supplied either at low cost or free from organisations such as Second Harvest, local supermarkets and in a unique relationship they have partnered with Starbucks to pick up all the unused fresh food they do not sell on a daily basis.
The amount of food they are able to get hold of is staggering – and without trying to overwhelm with facts and figures – on average most US households throw-away roughly 40% of the food they buy, uneaten. I don’t know what our percentage is in the UK, but given that we’re a similar functioning society, it’s probably not all that different. Quite a sobering thought.
So they’re able to help a huge number of families in the south Orange County area – and actually very surprisingly to me – one of the largest groups of people they help are soldiers and their families on the nearby US Marine base of Camp Pendleton. This is because the salaries of many of the newest recruits and lower level troops are not always high enough to provide for everything they need. At this point I could lapse into rant-mode about if a helicopter costs this much or if you can spend that much on developing, building and testing missiles, or how much fuel it takes for a tank to drive 5 miles then why can’t you pay the folk on the frontline more – but I don’t have those facts and realistically it’s a story better told by other people elsewhere. However what I can tell you is that it’s a fact that a significant number of those soldiers and their families are increasingly dependent on receiving food given to them by FAM.
Hmmm, America, not all what you expect…
Anyway, digression over. I was set to work sorting out the bakery stuff, fresh fruit and veg and dairy ready for to be given out and then moved into the foodbank/supermarket area where I helped fill the trollies of a number of clients with food for them to take away. There were some rather tasty looking chocolate cakes which went quickly, as did the steaks, milk and enchiladas. The fruit and veg was also snapped up, apart from courgettes and aubergines until I asked one of the other helpers why that might be, only to be told – “that’s because they don’t know what you’re talking about –to us those are zucchini and egg-plant”. Once I’d established that – they were away like hot-cakes.
It was a great day, I met some lovely people and I’ve been invited back – provided I start saying toh-may-toh rather than to-maah-toh. Britain and America eh? – two nations divided by a common language…
I’ve even been asked if I’d like to go on a ride-along next week with the trucks which pick up the food early in the morning to bring back to the warehouse and being an overgrown kid, my response was along the lines of “ooh, ooh, ooh, yes! Yes! Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!”.