Nearly 200 people were waiting outside in the cold morning air on Saturday. They were not in line for a new smartphone, or waiting for a sale at a department store. Families, couples and individuals received numbers and waited to get a bag of groceries to tide them over until the next payday or check in the mail.
This is Bread of Life, the Lodi branch of a Stockton-based food donation ministry. Hundreds of needy families accept food and a warm breakfast on the third Saturday of each month.
Gina Valadez, of Stockton, began giving away groceries in 2009 through LifeSong church in Stockton.
“I went to the pastor and I told him I noticed there were a lot of foreclosed homes in our area. I wanted to help the working families that were struggling because of losing their homes,” said Valadez.
The church sponsored her ministry with $500 a month, but soon the word spread and more people turned up every month. Hundreds of families were waiting outside, including people from Lodi, Modesto and Tracy. Valadez took that growth as a sign to expand the project. In September 2010, Bread of Life became an official non-profit organization. Now there is a once a month giveaway in Lodi, Tracy and Stockton, and another is planned for Manteca.
The Lodi branch started out at Faith Community Church, but was moved to Ebenezer Church on the corner of Central Avenue and Cherry Street.
Valadez keeps records of everyone who turns up for food. She does it to keep track of where the needy of the community are coming from, so Valadez can plan out future giveaway locations. She doesn’t require any more personal information than someone is willing to divulge
“We live and work in a valley with a lot of undocumented people. I don’t want anybody to feel they cannot come for groceries,” she said.
The food is purchased from local food banks, donated, or even picked up in bulk from Coscto or other businesses.
They give as much as they can. The rest goes into a storehouse next to the church.
Bread of Life is aimed at helping the working poor, said Mendoza, but no one is turned away.
On Saturday, the church’s parking lot was reorganized into an assembly line of tables to pack up groceries boxes and busy with volunteers are eager to donate their time.
Pat Browning is in charge of the Lodi branch and was trained by Valadez. She started out as a volunteer helping at Faith Community Church. But when they had to move, it turned out that her brother’s church had room to expand their own food giveaway program.
Bill Mastro is the pastor at Ebenezer Church where the giveaway has run for a year. Both were bustling around talking with those in line and coordinating with the dozens of volunteers.
“I love to serve people, those who are having a hard time right now,” said volunteer Teresa Mendoza. “Some organizations focus so much on homeless people. So many of us might have a roof over our head but we’re still struggling. “
Kathryn and Bob Cavanagh are a Lodi couple who came to the food line four months ago. She was compelled to start helping out to return the favor.
Kathryn Cavanagh said she has been homeless before for nearly a week, and can’t imagine what it must be like as a permanent situation.
“We all struggle. We need food too. This blesses us, but we also bless others,” she said.
Valadez said Bread of Life is different from other food giveaways.
“When someone is standing in line for food, you don’t want them to feel they are standing in a food line. So much humility is required to do that. I wanted to change the atmosphere, and treat them like a paying customer,” she said.
Those in line are treated to coffee, and a warm breakfast. They are greeted by name and with a smile. There’s room to offer a helping hand if those picking up food want to give a little of their time in return.
Curt Filler, of Lodi was on pancake duty.
“That’s what I do. This is a social event for me, and I get to see all these people getting something they wouldn’t normally get,” he said.
Three young volunteers were manning the pancake station.
Emmaleigh, Joseph and Laura Barnhardt were doling out syrup and butter along with warm plates of food.
“This is fun. We’re helping people. It’s more epic than cartoons,” said Emmaleigh, 11.
Volunteers also offer other services to the public while they wait for their food. Community Medical Center sent out three representatives to administer free HIV testing for the second time in Lodi.
“If someone is HIV positive and doesn’t know, they’re not on the medicine they need to keep the virus levels low and the whole community virus level goes up, making it more dangerous for everyone,” said Michael Young, tester and case manager.
The confidential process takes less than 15 minutes in a side room at the church. Maybe a dozen or so people turn up each time for the free test. Results are available at the next Bread of Life food giveaway.
The food comes in three waves. First, the leftovers from last time are pulled out of the storehouse and arranged on a series of long tables.
Bunches of broccoli, loaves of bread, bundles of oranges filled cardboard boxes outside the church, and bottle of juice and cans of chili and fruit lined the tables.
Next Pat Browning, the head of the Lodi branch of Bread of Life, drives in a trailer of local donations. Pies, cakes, coffee, danishes, eggs and granola bars are added to the spread.
Spirits are high as those in line wait for the final installment: An Enterprise moving truck stuffed to the brim with frozen foods and stores from the main warehouse on Eight Mile Road.
That’s when the volunteers, most wearing orange vests that read ”Kindness in Progress” burst into action. The trunk is unloaded in record time, and the patient line begins to move.
That’s the moment to get out of the way. The volunteers move with a special energy in them, said Valadez.
“In all fairness, this is something God has put inside me to do. I have to give him the credit for what is transpiring,” said Valadez.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at email@example.com.