Glen Curado opens up the fat binder that documents every family that has come through World Harvest Food Bank, his nonprofit food-assistance center. "We don't ask them for ID or proof of income or any of that," he says. "We just want to know how many families we've helped." He flips to the back of the book. "4,922. Almost 5,000 families. The 5,000th family will get free groceries for a year."
Free groceries for a year is a pretty incredible gift, but it's not that much more incredible than what World Harvest already provides those 4,922 families. The food bank, which is located just south of downtown on Grand Avenue, is set up like a grocery store. For a $30 "donation" you get a shopping cart, its bottom half and child's seat compartment already loaded with food. The main compartment is empty — that's for you to fill with whatever is available that day. There's always a wide array of vegetables, displayed on shelves just as they'd be at an upscale market. There's always bread. On a recent visit, carts came preloaded with big boxes of artichokes and red peppers and apples, containers of seaweed salad, bags of rice. Two freezer chests full of seafood stood ready for people to pick out packages of surf clams or sashimi-grade fish.
The food is donated by large grocery chains, including Vons, Albertsons and Whole Foods. Curado estimates that 60 to 70 percent of World Harvest's offerings are organic, and that a full cart can fit about $200 worth of groceries in it. It looks to me as if it could be double that value.
And if you can't afford the $30? You can sign up to volunteer for four hours, which gets you the same massive cart full of food. Curado, who was born in Taiwan, spent some of his childhood with his grandmother, who ran a noodle shop. Every evening, an old man came to the shop and helped his grandmother clean up, and then she fed him. It was that memory that inspired Curado's work-for-food model at World Harvest.
But it was unpaid traffic tickets that launched Curado on this path. After putting off the tickets for years, he eventually tried to pay them but was ordered to perform 200 hours of community service as punishment for his tardiness. He did that service at a food bank. "I saw what they were doing, and I was horrified," Curado says. "You give out one bag to each person — it has canned soup, mac and cheese and one loaf of bread. No vegetables, no good food. It seemed like a scam to me. Everyone who ran the place was in a suit and tie, had nice cars and a nice salary. But they'd yell at me if I tried to put more than one loaf of bread in the bag."
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He envisioned a different kind of food bank, one where a family can get a full pantry's worth of food, and one where everyone is welcome.
In 2007, when he was trying to get World Harvest off the ground, Curado wrote to a large corporation to ask for a grant. And the company, which he refrains from naming, sent him a check for $50,000. "I sent it back," he says. "They had a long list of conditions. The money had to be used only for people who made under $12,000 a year. It could not go to veterans who were receiving benefits." As a former member of the Air Force, Curado found that stipulation particularly galling. But mainly, he wanted World Harvest to feed anyone who felt they needed food, regardless of their situation.
In fact, Curado doesn't mind who shops here, even if they have plenty of money. Part of his aim is to reduce food waste, and he brings in a lot of food. The more people who come in, the more folks are paying that $30, which allows him to pay his rent. He also has shelves on one side of the warehouse with items for sale, things that have been donated but are more specialized, such as Maldon salt and large containers of olive oil. World Harvest charges about half what you'd pay in a regular retail shop for those nonperishable items. Since his one attempt at requesting outside money, Curado has applied for no grants. World Harvest is self-funding.
But his rejection of that first big check was not without controversy. His wife made him sleep downstairs on the couch for two weeks when he sent the check back. "I lay there and I thought and thought about how I'm gonna make this work," Curado says. "At the end of the two weeks, I had the plan I'm still using today. There's the couch right there!" He points to an old chaise lounge in the corner of his office. "I keep it here to remind me. To be creative, and move forward."