Food Bank Coalition volunteers resign amid policy changes

The Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo is looking for new volunteers after all 10 volunteers at one of its Nipomo distribution centers resigned amid complaints that the organization was becoming bureaucratic and suspicious.

Former Nipomo Senior Center distribution site leader Jess Novoa said he was asked to step down Sept. 30 after he refused to require that food recipients sign a form each time a volunteer delivered a bag of groceries to them.

Novoa said volunteers also were told not to give out any extra bags remaining at the end of the distribution times and were asked to work longer hours. The volunteers were already upset with the Food Bank’s plans to close its South County warehouse and centralize its operations in San Luis Obispo, Novoa said.

"The Food Bank is great, and it does a lot of good," Novoa said. "I hate to give it a black eye, but I think they are really focusing on the numbers too much here. There needs to be a little humanity in this."

The nine other regular volunteers at the Senior Center distribution site resigned following Novoa's announcement that he would no longer volunteer with the coalition after 15 years.

The food bank operates a distribution center every Wednesday at the Nipomo Senior Center on Dana Street. Participants sign up each week to receive a bag filled with vegetables and sometimes meat, and another plastic bag with extra items such as milk and packaged foods.

The participants, who self-verify that they meet low-income guidelines to receive food, pick up the bags themselves at the distribution site each week, and sign up for the next week's distribution.

Novoa said volunteers would often deliver bags to residents who could not physically make it to the distribution site or who had to miss the distribution times because of medical appointments.

In recent months, Novoa was told by his liaison with the Food Bank that the volunteers would need to get signatures from each of those deliveries, which he claimed would be a burden on the volunteers.

"I always used to say that I would quit when they asked me to be a police officer," he said. "I don't want to police people. I want to help those people that need it. But that's where we are now."

Nipomo resident Madie Leek, who was one of the nine volunteers to resign, said she was insulted by the requirement because she felt it implied the volunteers were acting dishonorably.

"We're not stealing these bags of food and taking them home, but that's kind of how they were making us feel," she said. "Our mission was to get food to people who needed it, whether they could be at the distribution site or not. It's just incomprehensible that they would require all this. We're volunteers!"

Food Bank Coalition Director of Programs Jen Miller said the request is based on U.S. Department of Agriculture policies and best practices that the coalition follows at all of its distribution centers in San Luis Obispo County.

"The Food Bank does not require proof of income, only a signature self-certifying that recipients meet (state) CDSS income guidelines," Miller wrote in an email to The Tribune. "Alternative pick up forms assure that the Food Bank has an authentic signature of each person who receives food from the Food Bank. This is a standard requirement for all food distributions."

Miller said she was sad to see Novoa and his team leave, "but we must uphold our standards in order to protect recipients."

The Food Bank Coalition is currently in search for replacement volunteers for the Nipomo Senior Center site, Miller said, including a new site leader.

More information

The Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo distributes free food every Wednesday from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at the Nipomo Senior Center, 200 Dana St. For more information, visit www.slofoodbank.org.