SparkPoint Marin and ExtraFood started a new food program to complement SparkPoint's financial counseling for low-income Marin residents.
When people have the nutritious food they need and don't have to worry about their next meal, they're able to focus on improving their financial futures.
"The food program is a life-saving service." -- Heather Bettini, Executive Director, SparkPoint Marin
SparkPoint Marin’s Food Pantry Helps People Rebuild Their Lives
Marin County isn’t only home to people who have all they need – there is much more to Marin’s story than meets the eye.
A sobering fact: more than 16,000 seniors and more than 12,000 children live in poverty in Marin. In one of the country’s most abundant counties, there is much more we can do to help low-income families, adults and seniors meet their basic needs.
Together, SparkPoint Marin and ExtraFood are confronting the challenges of poverty head on.
Serving a diverse community
SparkPoint Marin is a nonprofit program with a range of services designed to empower people to get their finances back on track. United Way Bay Area has SparkPoint Centers throughout the Bay Area, including Marin County, where nearly 50,000 people – one in five – are unsure of where their next meal will come from. The organization works with individuals to make progress on their financial and career goals, and become self-sufficient.
The center is situated on a corner of downtown San Rafael in a mustard-colored two-story building. SparkPoint Marin serves 250 members – 33% who make less than $10,000 a year and over half who are women. Members receive one-on-one financial coaching that includes budgeting, credit and savings education. This high-touch model factors in each client’s individual situation. Whether they are single mothers working three jobs, senior citizens who can’t afford their medication, or single homeless men who want to get back on their feet, this unique approach to financial coaching works: 48% of clients have increased their income by 30% since becoming SparkPoint members, and 52% have created and maintained a household budget.
“What I like about this model is that it accommodates people’s differences,” says Heather Bettini, director of SparkPoint Marin. “Everyone’s situation is different and SparkPoint is able to customize services to directly meet the needs of each individual and family who walks through the door.”
A partnership to alleviate poverty
One of the main stressors for people living in poverty is hunger. Food is expensive in Marin County, especially nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables and meat. Many who struggle to make ends meet may have no money left to buy food after paying bills such as utilities, rent or transportation to and from work. That’s where SparkPoint Marin’s partnership with ExtraFood comes in.
ExtraFood, which stocks SparkPoint’s food pantry, is the only countywide food recovery and donation service of its kind in Marin. The organization works closely with recipient partners who serve low-income children, adults and families. ExtraFood’s staff locates donations of excess food from businesses that match its recipient partners’ needs, and volunteers pick up and deliver the food in less than 30 minutes at no cost to donors or recipients. What might normally end up in the landfill goes to help many vulnerable people in Marin who are struggling with hunger.
Zoila Deras is the Office Manager at SparkPoint Marin. Because members would often tell her about their struggle to put food on the table, Zoila and SparkPoint Marin’s former director, LaSaunda Tate, had the idea to start a food pantry, which SparkPoint launched in April 2016. According to their latest survey completed between April and September of this year, nearly 300 visits were made to the pantry. The pantry is set up like a grocery store: people “shop” for free items such as fresh fruits, vegetables, salads, wraps and soups – the types of food they normally might not be able to afford. Individuals and families can take as much food as they can carry home.
“People can supplement their income, which relieves them of making difficult decisions about whether to take the bus to work or to buy bread for the family,” says Zoila. "The food also gives people peace of mind, and that allows them to be better parents and employees because they can think more clearly."
“People are coming in a state of hunger and unable to feed their families each week, and at the same time they’re working on their financial goals and resumes,” says Axel Flores, a financial coach at SparkPoint Marin. “Having supplemental food in their homes makes a huge difference and empowers them to make progress in their lives.”
In the spirit of inclusion, the pantry’s healthy, fresh food isn’t limited to financial coaching members only – anyone in the community who needs food is welcome.
ExtraFood’s donations make a difference for SparkPoint Marin’s clients
Esther is a wife and mother of two. When she started coming to the center, she was spending $400-$500 each month on groceries. Even though her family receives CalFresh benefits – a government food subsidy program – it wasn’t enough to reduce the food bill. When Esther started using the SparkPoint pantry, she realized her monthly food bill had dropped by $300. The significant savings gave her and her family the freedom to eat healthier because they had money to buy the more expensive, nutritious foods. Now Esther is focused on saving for her kids to attend college. They will be the first in their family to reach that goal.
SparkPoint Marin also serves senior citizens – many living on fixed incomes, which makes it difficult to make ends meet in high-priced Marin. Betty is 79 years old, lives alone and doesn’t have family nearby. She collects Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and as a result, she doesn’t qualify for CalFresh even though SSI doesn’t cover her bills. She’s stuck in a tough, nearly inescapable situation because she cannot work. There’s no way she can afford to pay for her housing and still have money left to pay for groceries. Before SparkPoint’s pantry began, she lived in a constant state of worry. Because of the pantry, Betty doesn’t have to worry about getting enough to eat.
A key ExtraFood food donor: Byte Foods
Byte Foods donates a substantial portion of the food that makes SparkPoint Marin’s food pantry possible. They have mobile refrigerators, similar to vending machines, stocked with fresh food and leased to businesses, such as Autodesk, Chevron, Sephora and Tesla. Whatever food is unused is donated. ExtraFood makes that process easier for Byte Foods by customizing pick-up times.
“ExtraFood is a key partner in our business,” says Megan Mokri, co-founder of Byte Foods. “They help streamline our operations by making the donating process easy.”
ExtraFood uses cloud technology that’s accessible by ExtraFood staff and nearly 200 volunteers at anytime, from anywhere, on any device. When a match is found between a regular food donor and a recipient, ExtraFood posts that “food trip” online and volunteers sign up first-come, first-served to pick up and deliver the food. And when a food donor makes a spontaneous donation, it’s matched with a recipient and an immediate text message about the food trip is sent to the volunteer team. Sometimes, a volunteer responds within 60 seconds.
Working with ExtraFood to integrate supplemental food with financial services makes SparkPoint Marin’s impact even more profound. When people have the nutritious food they need and don’t have to worry about their next meal, they’re able to focus on improving their financial futures.
“Without our partnership with ExtraFood and their generous food donors SparkPoint Marin would likely not be providing food to the community at all,” says Heather Bettini. “The donations change lives for the better - the food pantry is a life-saving service.”