Two decades ago, Margarita Cortez and her family got help from Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry and Kitchen after their home was lost in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.
Then, the food pantry was in its infancy—a parish mission of St. Patrick's Catholic Church. Now the organization is one of the largest groups helping the hungry in the Pajaro Valley and Cortez has come full circle to become executive director of Loaves and Fishes.
Cortez, a UC Santa Barbara graduate, was named to the post in January, as the food pantry saw demand for its bags of free groceries and complimentary hot lunches skyrocket.
In 2010, provided 8,655 families with pantry services and served 23,840 hot meals. In January, the demand for hot meals jumped from about 2,000 a month to more than 3,000, according to Bob Montague, 10-year volunteer with the organization and the food pantry's treasurer.
The demand for food has increased at Loaves and Fishes every year since 2007, according to the food pantry.
But the reason for the dramatic upsurge in need in January is unclear. The bad economy and Watsonville's traditionally high unemployment rate in the winter are obvious contributors, but those circumstances aren't exclusive to this year.
"We flow with the strawberries," Montague said, referring to the increased use of the food pantry during the off-season for agriculture in the Pajaro Valley. In the summertime, only about 60 hot lunches are served daily.
While there are several food pantries in Watsonville—all a part of the Pajaro Valley Pantry Network and run from area churches and other nonprofit organizations—Loaves and Fishes traditionally helps more people, because it's the only pantry open five days a week. The converted home at 150 Second St. handles nearly half of the referrals from Second Harvest Food Bank and churches without well-stocked pantries.
"We're kind of the first responders for people who need food," Montague said. "As a result, our clientele has been increasing."
Cortez, whose family got support from the food pantry when she was a child, described Loaves and Fishes as a "safety net" for the hungry.
People living within the food pantry's boundaries—essentially the southwest area of town—can get bags of groceries twice a month. Others can get one bag and are directed to a food pantry closer to their homes.
"Each bag is packed to suit," Montague said.
The average bag is designed for a family of four and is planned to provide adequate calories, protein and nutrition. The bag is full of fresh produce, bakery products, rice, beans and meat, and has enough food for more than 21 individual meals.
Families line up to get their groceries daily—41 percent of the people served are children—along with single, homeless men and other needy people in the community. Montague said they're seeing more out-of-work construction workers, landscapers and gardeners in recent months.
People are taken on their word when they come for groceries and no one is turned away.
As people file in and out of the food pantry with bags of groceries, the sounds and smells of lunch cooking fill the air.
Loaves and Fishes cook Maria Gonzalez concocts a menu daily to provide hot lunch to dozens of hungry people. She gets creative, Cortez said, explaining that one day's lunch might be baked chicken, followed by a chicken salad sandwich the next day.
"It's easy because I have a lot of experience," said Gonzalez as she stirred a large stainless steel pot bean soup on a recent morning. She cooked in a taco truck for years and said she keeps a lot of menu ideas in her head.
The bean soup was accompanied by sandwiches and macaroni, giving those lunching several options. People come from throughout Watsonville and across the river levee in Pajaro to dine on Gonzalez's fare.
"I decide how I can fix it [and] what's good for them," Gonzalez said.
Cortez added, "Our cook goes to great lengths to make sure it's healthy."
The food served and shared at Loaves and Fishes comes from several sources: three local organic farms donate extras, as does a nearby bakery. Second Harvest Food Bank provides some donated food to Loaves and Fishes. But the food pantry buys about three-quarters of the food it hands out.
"We have to operate like a business," Montague said.
Loaves and Fishes has just three employees; everyone else is a volunteer. Some fill community service requirements for school or court; others are retired or unemployed and looking for a way to fill their days.
Cortez is working to increase donations to Loaves and Fishes through school food drives and partnerships with area grocers, bakers and farmers.
And at the end of the day, there is even a use for the food waste. Volunteer Cecile Mills takes the scraps to feed her chickens or to compost, efforts that inspired one farm to bring its surplus produce right to Loaves and Fishes.
Mills said she is impressed by the efficiency of the food pantry's operation.
"It's amazing how the food comes in and goes out," she said.
Lunch is served at noon Monday to Friday. For more information about Pajaro Valley Loaves and Fishes, contact Margarita Cortez at 831-722-4144 or firstname.lastname@example.org.