SANTA ROSA -- After more than six years of planning, the larger new home of Redwood Empire Food Bank is set to open Tuesday.

[caption id="attachment_71341" align="alignright" width="360"] David Goodman, executive director, shows the spacious new lobby with pallet-like wall art by Jackson Liles Architecture. (image credit: Gary Quackenbush)[/caption]

This facility, located at 3990 Brickway Blvd. north of Santa Rosa, is designed to serve 166 nonprofit and faith-based agency partners that manage 248 food distribution programs in Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, Lake and Del Norte counties up to the Oregon border some 320 miles away.

With three and a half times more square footage than the former facility at 3320 Industrial Dr. in Santa Rosa, the new location also has 25 percent more storage volume because of a higher ceiling, providing more space for vertical storage racks.

This central food distribution hub combines the activities previously conducted at four different buildings into one site with 60,410 square feet of usable space, including a 5,000-square-foot freezer and refrigerator.

“We have seen food demand grow from 70,000 people per month since the economic downturn to 78,000 today,” said David Goodman, executive director of Redwood Empire Food Bank.

Of this total, some 11,800 are seniors, 13,500 are from working families and 34,000 are children. While some 52.2 percent of adults served have jobs, 61 percent of those adults are at or below the poverty level, and 38 percent have children. A recent study of those helped by the food bank estimated that one in six Sonoma County residents need food assistance, according to Mr. Goodman, who noted that figure likely is low.

"But this data is not the whole story, since it only counts those who come to a food distribution center, not everyone who is hungry," Mr. Goodman said. "Our goal is to change food insecurity into food security. Access to healthy food is a right, not a privilege."

[caption id="attachment_71342" align="alignleft" width="400"] Redwood Empire Food Bank's new home (image credit: Gary Quackenbush)[/caption]

The total project cost was $11.2 million, including $5 million to purchase the building. The organization expects to pay off debt used for the project in three years, based on pledges from the capital campaign. Repayment will stay within the group's annual budget of $5.6 million, but service demand is increasing the budget by about $200,000 a year, according to Mr. Goodman.

The new center is designed for more convenience, efficiency and comfort for agency partners who come to shop. It will open an hour earlier, at 8 a.m. It will close at 3 p.m. on weekdays, but evening hours are planned. The shopping area will be heated in winter and cooled in summer.

Large double-decker shopping carts are provided along with reusable plastic containers shoppers can use within the facility or purchase to take with them.

There are now two agency checkout lines, instead of one and ample parking is available in the loading dock area behind the building.

Lists of available food will be posted online (refb.org). Agency shoppers can pre-order by phone until 2 p.m. the previous day (707-523-7900 ext. 101) or by email (order@refb.org) to reduce time on site. Orders are packed and set aside for pickup.

For agencies wishing to obtain 500 pounds of food or more, 30-minute afternoon appointments (noon to 3 p.m.) can be scheduled to expedite the process.

“Our vision for this center goes beyond the traditional role of a food bank,” Mr. Goodman said. "With larger storage capacity, we can increase the number, variety and quantities of items kept on hand and make them available each day, rather than just on certain days. We plan to lease excess dry storage space until it is needed internally, and offer our community room for a fee to anyone wishing to have an offsite meeting

Other new features include a grocery store for those whose incomes qualify for assistance. They can shop at discount prices and pay with electronic benefit transfer cards, WIC, food stamps or cash.

The building also includes a demonstration kitchen where guest chefs can conduct food preparation and education classes, and where those on low incomes can learn how to prepare food in a certified kitchen.

This center can also be used to prepare food for summer lunch programs, after-school suppers and for emergency preparedness as new funding is acquired to support these projects. The new building has the ability to prepare thousands of meals each day for residents of Sonoma and neighboring counties.

“We see this kitchen also producing our line of Simply Supper packaged foods and also creating soups and stews for our agency partners," Mr. Goodman said. "Similar programs elsewhere are being used to prepare burritos for farm workers and other nutritious dishes for target audiences.

He said the overall objective is to address a variety of hunger-related needs as well as to explore potential new lines of revenue within the expanded facility.

“I would like to see our reception area, community room and other public areas used for realtor conferences, winery events, corporate holiday parties as well as utilized by clubs and organizations wishing to rent space for a monthly gathering knowing that these funds are going for a worthy cause.” 

The hardest part about looking down the road is deciding what not to do, according to Mr. Goodman.

“For me, the most exciting prospects for the future are the things we don’t know we are going to do as yet," he said. "We have to focus on the best and most viable opportunities as we set the stage for continued growth and to fulfill our core mission. In the words of Samuel Johnson, 'a true measure of society is how it takes care of its poor.'"