Our warehouses buzz with activity this time of year. The beeping of tractor trailer trucks coming and going, the zoom of forklifts moving pallets of food and the voices of Second Harvest of Silicon Valley staff trying to be heard above it all is like a food bank symphony.
A big part of a holiday meal is the main dish. Our staff have been working really hard this year to secure whole chickens and turkeys at a discounted rate in order to give them away for free to our clients. And now that we are serving 450,000 people on average every month, the work of providing the ingredients for a special holiday meal for our clients is even more complex.
“It’s about representation.”
Part of our planning process for ordering food includes surveying our clients to understand what kinds of protein they value most during the holidays. We learned a large segment of our clients preferred whole chickens.
“Not everyone has the refrigeration space or a giant oven for a turkey,” explains Barbara Gehlen, Second Harvest’s director of food sourcing. “And not everyone celebrates the holidays with a turkey. Ordering whole chickens for our clients is about representation.” Because the whole chickens we provide average about 5.5 pounds, they are often a better option for our clients than turkeys, which typically weigh between 12 and 14 pounds.
To supplement the whole chickens and turkeys, this holiday season we will also be providing ground turkey, chicken parts, pork and even some plant-based protein.
Gehlen smiles, “That way everybody gets something for the holidays.”
“I start ordering for the holidays in the springtime.”
We are one of the few food banks that buys whole chickens and turkeys in bulk. In order to guarantee we can find, purchase and distribute these items to our clients in time for the holidays, planning starts early in the year.
“I usually start ordering for the holidays in the springtime… so we can lock in the price,” says Gehlen. “In our case, we need to buy as efficiently as possible.”
Gehlen relies on a few cost-saving techniques:
- Advanced Planning
To secure cheaper rates, we tend to order food 2-3 months in advance. We ordered whole chickens and turkeys up to eight months in advance.
- Spot Buys
When a vendor has too much product, they sometimes offer it to food banks at a discounted rate.
- Intermodal Rail
We ship food on freight trains to get it closer to us, so we don’t have to pay someone to drive all the way to the source.
While the majority of our food comes from large-scale food donations, we also supplement with purchased items such as turkeys and chickens. Due to the worldwide supply chain disruptions and price increases caused by the pandemic, it is critical for the food bank to order early and pay sensibly.
“We want to utilize our dollar really wisely right now to be fiscally responsible by buying more with less. That’s our goal,” Gehlen shares.
“Last year was really brutal.”
Even in the early days of the pandemic and during severe product shortages, our food sourcing team still managed to get chickens and turkeys for the holidays. Gehlen says the severity of the supply chain disruption was something she had never experienced in the 14 years she has worked at Second Harvest.
“Last year was really brutal,” remembers Gehlen. “It was really hard to get product. I don’t think I’ve ever worked that many hours looking for food.”
With careful planning, we were able to source significantly more chicken this year:
Preparing our Warehouses for the Holidays
From the beginning of November to the end of December, we’ll be receiving a total of 27 tractor trailers full of whole chickens. That means our four warehouses are going to be even more packed and our staff will be even busier working to unload and redistribute the food back out to distribution sites. Enrique Juarez, the warehouse supervisor at our Curtner warehouse, explains that multiple deliveries in a week must be stored in our large walk-in freezers, so space has to be made in addition to our regular orders.
But the work is worth it. “There’s going to be a lot of happy people. And full bellies,” reflects Juarez as he looks at the boxes and boxes of frozen chickens and turkeys on the warehouse floor. “My shift is over only when the work is over.”
Another key part of our operations is our volunteers, who sort and repack food. Sokhom Han, a volunteer specialist at our Brennan warehouse, has a deep connection to this work.
“Working here is a blessing,” Han said. “Knowing that this is going out to people who really need it for the holidays, it’s great.”
Han grew up in the East Side neighborhood of San Jose. He remembers attending Santee Elementary School and waiting for the weekly food distribution from Second Harvest.
“To be on the other side and to understand this a little bit better, my life is complete,” reflects Han. “I don’t look at it as work anymore. This is passion. This is something I love doing.”
The Hope that a Meal Provides
Feeding our Silicon Valley community makes our complex behind-the-scenes efforts all worth it. All the client surveys, planning, ordering challenges, deliveries and logistics ultimately means that our clients know they can depend on us for a holiday meal.
Families struggling to survive in Silicon Valley have been devastated by the past 21 months of the pandemic – financially, mentally and emotionally. But despite the many hardships they have faced, our clients are hopeful for the future. We hope that our food helps our clients prepare a cherished recipe and share a special meal with their loved ones.
Our staff, volunteers, donors and supporters help us care for the health and well-being of our entire community. When we all work together to provide food to families, we offer more than just nourishment. We are helping people in our own community feel a little more secure and find joy in the pleasure of cooking and sharing a meal with loved ones.