Griffen: Dedicated to Serving the Valley’s Hungry Through the Imperial Valley Food Bank

Sara Griffen, executive director of the Imperial Valley Food Bank, is pictured in her office at the Food Bank’s headquarters and warehouse in rural El Centro

When your job is to feed the hungry in a rural county with limited resources where so many are living at or below poverty level, leaving thousands as “food insecure,” you know the work will not be easy.

It is the kind of work that can bring you face to face with hardship, especially when seeing children without enough food, but it also allows you to see the best in the community as people provide their time and resources to help.

This is the job that Sara Griffen has.

She is the executive director of the Imperial Valley Food Bank, an agency serving 20,000 people monthly throughout Imperial County.

It’s an agency that fights hunger by securing the financial resources and food needed month after month, year after year. It is a never-ending effort—one where success is measured by managing to get food to the needy while facing the reality hunger is a nationwide issue that may never be wiped out.

For Griffen, that harsh reality is tempered by seeing the sustained local effort by her staff, board, volunteers and donors who help wage this war on hunger.

“There are a lot of little miracles that happen here every day,” said Griffen during a recent interview at the Imperial Valley Food Bank office and warehouse in rural El Centro where supplies are gathered and kept in large refrigerated storage facilities.

Griffen, who has a master’s degree in food systems and society from Marylhurst University in Portland, Ore., has been at the helm of the local Food Bank for more than six years. She describes this job as being the right fit for her.

“I don’t really like easy work,” she said. “I like big projects. I like tackling bigger things. Some people are just wired that way.”

She also describes the work of the Food Bank in simple terms. “There is excess food out there and there are hungry people. So let’s be that conduit to get that excess food to people. Being that conduit is the right thing to do. It’s difficult, and we’ve worked really hard over the years, and we are good at it.”

What is the task Griffen and the Food Bank are facing?

Here are the statistics. Fifty percent of the Food Bank’s clients are children with estimates revealing that one in two Imperial Valley children are food insecure. Additionally, one Valley resident in four does not know where their next meal will come from. Fifteen percent of those served are senior citizens with most having to choose between food and paying their bills and for their medicine.

To combat hunger, Griffen, her board and staff have expanded the Food Bank’s infrastructure, increasing the agency’s ability to reach out to the more remote communities. A critical improvement came when the agency obtained a refrigerated truck to haul food to eight of the most rural areas of the county, increasing the amount of food they receive and the quality of the food. Those communities include Ocotillo, Seeley, Calipatria, Niland, Winterhaven, the communities on the southern shore of the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach on the northern shore of the Sea and Westmorland.

The Food Bank, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and through the California Association of Food Banks, has also built a strong relationship with growers, giving the agency access to fruits and vegetables that might not be for commercial use but are still high quality food.

The agency’s Weekend Backpack Program has become a key way of getting food to nearly700 children throughout the Valley.

Additionally, the Food Bank is constantly working at finding new ways to provide food resources, including a new partnership with a San Diego sports fishermen organization that is bringing in some 700 pounds of fish to the Valley.

The work of operating the Food Bank brings two major stresses, Griffen said. The first comes on the administration side in having to maintain a budget supplemented largely on the kindness of strangers. It takes $750,000 a year to run the Food Bank with a great portion of that funding from donors and grant programs.

“You have to be faithful and believe that it will all work out,” said Griffen who spends nearly half of her time fund-raising.

The second stress comes from working with the Food Bank’s clients and witnessing first-hand how the large the need is and facing the reality that there is still even greater demand for services.

“We are doing the best we can with our staff, our supplies and money, but there is so much more we need to do,” she said.

One obstacle to making the message known is that the plight of those who are hungry is not always out there in the public eye.

“There is no poster child for hunger,” said Griffen, who is a mother of two adult children. “The child who is hungry in this county does not want you to know it because it is not cool.”

But hunger is out there… everywhere.

Some of the worst cases the Food Bank is seeing are among the elderly on fixed incomes, and in particular, there are elderly who find themselves having to raise their grandchildren without enough money to provide food all month long.

Then, there are those college-age young adults who are doing their best to stay in school while living out of their cars. They are both homeless and hungry.

Griffen, an Imperial Valley resident since 2009 who moved to the Valley with her husband, Ron, pastor of the El Centro First Methodist Church, said part of her job is to tell the stories of those in need to potential donors.

“If it touches their heart, they may be more in cline to support us in our work or anybody doing this kind of work,” she said.

There have been times, Griffen added, when she is delivering a message and someone will ask—why should those in need be entitled to help? She has a quick response to anyone who would raise such a point.

“I run an underfunded non-profit in a remote rural county. I’m going to solve the entitlement issue?”

She is quick to point out, that if the societal problem of hunger were solved, there wouldn’t need to be a Food Bank, but, she said, “I don’t see that happening in this generation. It is going to take an amount of political will that I do not see changing in the foreseeable future. So we are left to manage getting food to people, and we can do that, but that’s not ending hunger.”

While there may be no immediate end to hunger, the Imperial Valley does have a united group of people through the Food Bank—and the charitable organizations and churches that receive supplies from the Food Bank—all working as a team to feed the hungry.

Griffen said she is fortunate to have a dedicated staff and a strong board that make the work of the Food Bank possible.

“We are all united in this mission,” she said.