A Food Connection Hotline operator answers the phone in the late 80s.

Our Food Connection Hotline recently celebrated its 30th Anniversary and we sat down with Cindy McCown, VP of Community Engagement and Policy and resident historian (she’s been with Second Harvest Food Bank for over 30 years!), to learn more about its beginnings.

How was the Food Connection Hotline started?
Back then, if you needed any sort of social services, you could call the County and talk to an operator who would help you with housing, food, and other support services within the county system. I remember when we got the call from the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency asking Second Harvest Food Bank to do information and referral since they were discontinuing this service. We said we’d only do food referrals, not housing and other support services. What the Food Bank added over County services was that we were actually tapping into the nonprofit systems. We referred people to our pantry program, but they could only get three referrals in a year.

We made the Food Connection office in the old storage area at our former facility on Commercial Street in San Jose. Then CEO Mary Ellen Heising and I pushed the “junk” out of the storage area, over the edge from the second story into bins!

What was the Food Connection Hotline set-up?
Food Connection was started using file cards to track client data. Remember, it was started before we had computers for staff in the offices! It was a big deal when Plantronics gave us headsets for staff to wear when managing calls. We have come a long ways.

What did the Food Bank learn after saying yes to the county and running the hotline?
Early on, it became apparent that people had to travel long distances to get services. We were saying, “This is kind of crazy that people who live in East San Jose have to go all the way to West San Jose to get services.” Our goal for Food Connection was to help people get services in their own zip code. We started really looking at where these referrals were coming from and where the services were. It also helped us over time to see where some of the gaps were in our system.

Comparing the need from then to now, what would you say are the biggest differences?
Now we’re doing more public and private referrals. In the early days, we were pretty much only doing the nonprofit network. We weren’t signing people up for CalFresh, nor doing referrals to school meal programs or other public assistance, so it was hard to get a good sense of the overall need was. Over time, there’ve been more and more cuts to the public safety net, which has pushed people to turn to the private, nonprofit safety net even more. Now you really see cuts in the housing sector. There was HUD housing, section 8 vouchers –  there’s been more pressure on the nonprofit sector to make up for those losses.

Also over time, our staff is now signing people up much more extensively for public and private resources. The county system has really allowed nonprofit entities like Second Harvest to actually sign people up for their programs and previously that wasn’t the case. There’s been a much stronger recognition that the Food Bank and our network of partners might be touching vulnerable populations that may never go to Social Services offices. And there’s certainly huge trust within our partner network that we don’t share the information we gather from individual clients with anyone else.

Our Food Connection Hotline staff celebrating the hotline’s 30th anniversary

Is there anything else you’d like to share about the Food Connection Hotline?
It’s really a lifeline for a lot of people. Also what’s changed over time is that we no longer have this mentality that you can only have 3 crises in a year. We really had to educate our partner agencies to think about things differently. Peoples’ lives aren’t just episodic. Sometimes they are, but the reality is more people need ongoing food assistance just to get by. That’s a huge change from the mentality of emergency referrals.  And I think it’s great people don’t have to defend themselves when they need go to a pantry, why they need to come more than 3 times.

***Know someone who needs help? Please tell them to get in touch with our Food Connection team.