The sun shines down on Tomales Town Hall on an unseasonably warm Thursday in January. A handwritten sign outside reads “Food Pantry,” and below it, “Despensa de Alimentos.” The door is open and the room inside is humming with conversation and activity. Tables are set up in a U-shape. On one, canned food is carefully laid out—today there seems to be extra tuna fish—on another, carrots tumble out over cardboard boxes and red onions beckon from a stainless steel bin.
In this town of 250, people chat like neighbors, and many are, as they browse bins, selecting food to take home. The Tomales Food Pantry has been open since last November, and offers seasonal produce from local and Central Valley farms, as well as soon-to-be-expired inventory from local grocery stores, to roughly 35 families each week. Fruits and vegetables, canned goods and starches are plentiful. Produce such as carrots, onions, potatoes and yams are available in the winter months. Apples, pears and tangerines, now in season, are generally available. The pantry is sponsored by the Marin Food Bank, which recently merged with the San Francisco Food Bank in a mission to increase service in Marin County by at least 50 percent in two years.
Volunteer coordinator Nicole Vigeant, who became involved in the program through Presbyterian pastor Cornelia Crocker, coordinates Thursday deliveries and organizes staffing for the pantry. “The Food Pantry is becoming a hub for social services and a place for people to connect,” Vigeant said.
Dairy and meat are often in short supply, but recently Meals on Wheels has been donating leftover milk. Local farmers, like Margie McDonald of Wild Blue Farm, often bring in extra produce to share with the community. “This is something [area producers] can all embrace: [to] give a little bit of what we have locally back to this beautiful food bank we have in Tomales,” she said.
Stacy Newman, of the San Francisco Food Bank, explained the “Farm to Family” program: “Food banks connect with California food growers and packers to receive fresh fruits and vegetables which aren’t considered marketable—due to shape, size, slight blemishes or overproduction—but are still delicious and healthy to eat. In the past, this surplus produce was ploughed under, fed to animals or dumped in landfills.”
There are no qualifications for receiving food from the pantry, and no paperwork to fill out. Participants are counted anonymously as they walk through the door so that Vigeant can be sure to provide enough food each week. Shoppers bring their own bags and choose food that best suits the needs of their families in a farmer’s market environment. Each person can take enough food for a family of four.
The federal poverty level, which does not account for regional cost-of-living variations, is $22,350 for a famsily of four. According to the 2011 Self-Sufficiency Standard for California, a two-parent family with one pre-schooler and one school-age child needs $86,629 annually to meet basic cost of living expenses in Marin.
Vigeant delivers leftovers to people unable to attend, or brings it to meetings and events. And she has no shortage of volunteers, which is perhaps the best indicator of how the town has received the program. “What I really appreciate about the food pantry is that it encourages [from]-scratch cooking by providing raw ingredients,” says one volunteer, who suggests carrot soup with North African spices as an ideal recipe for pantry ingredients. “Who wouldn’t want to give or get free food, especially good, healthy food?” Vigeant asks. The pantry is, simply put, a delicious affirmation of community.
The Tomales Food Pantry provides free groceries for area residents at the Tomales Town Hall every Thursday at 2 p.m. Bring your own bags. If you are interested in making a donation or would like to volunteer, call Nicole Vigeant at (707) 878.2391.
Carrot soup with North African spices
Adapted from Annie Sommerville’s Fields of Greens
The carrots, onions, potato and tangerines were all obtained from the Tomales Food Pantry. As the tangerines were on-hand, our volunteer chef substituted fresh-squeezed tangerine juice in place of the orange juice.
5 cups vegetable stock
10 thin coins of ginger
1 tablespoon light olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seed, toasted and ground
1 teaspoon coriander seed, toasted and ground
2 teaspoons of grated fresh ginger
cayenne and salt
2 pounds carrots, thinly sliced, about 7 cups
1 medium white or sweet potato, peeled and thinly sliced, about 1 cup
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
sour cream, for garnish
Make stock and keep over low heat. Heat olive oil in a soup pot, add onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Saute over medium heat until juices release, about 5 minutes, then add garlic, cumin, coriander, ginger, and pinch of cayenne. Cook until onion is soft, about 10 minutes, adding stock if necessary. Add carrots, potato or sweet potato, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 quart stock. Bring to gentle boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer about 15 minutes. Puree soup in blender or food processor until smooth, adding stock if needed. Return to pot, add orange juice, and thin with stock to desired consistency. Season with salt and cayenne. Garnish each serving with sour cream.