Correction: A prior online version of this story incorrectly listed and contained a photo of the Manna House as the host of Oakhurst’s food bank. The correct location is Oakhurst’s Our Lady of the Sierra Catholic Church.
The longtime coordinator of two eastern Madera County food banks is stepping down — temporarily stopping all operations at both locations.
Mary Bowman, the former coordinator, said she decided to leave Dec. 20 because the quality and quantity of the food delivered to the two eastern Madera food banks had gotten progressively worse over the last five years.
The food banks Oakhurst and Coarsegold operate as partner agencies of the the Central California Food Bank.
Meanwhile, Central California Food Bank officials have steadfastly denied Bowman’s claims, saying all items are routinely inspected and checked out.
Bowman was coordinator of the Oakhurst and Coarsegold food banks since their inception about 15 years ago. The two food distribution centers were located at the Our Lady of the Sierra Catholic Church in Oakhurst and the Coarsegold Historic Village.
Bowman, 67, claims the variety of the food sent up from Fresno the has decreased from nine separate batches of fruits and vegetables a month to four. She said the food items sent up were often inedible.
According to the Central California Food Bank, all of the food distributed by the organization comes from local agricultural partners.
“It got to the point where I had to say ‘I can’t have my volunteers handling this stuff’ and we couldn’t hand it out to people,” she said. “It just wasn’t right. It wasn’t something I would eat, so to hand it out to somebody else to eat, it did not feel right.”
The food banks fed between 200 to 400 families a month, said Bowman. But once the quality of the food began to deteriorate, those numbers were cut in half.
The food banks in Oakhurst and Coarsegold distribute the food on the second and third Tuesdays of each month, respectively.
Bowman says the final straw came Dec. 18. On that date, all four of the batches of food she received — which included plums, squash, oranges and kiwis — had a high amount of spoiled items.
Bowman said she called Central California Food Bank two days later to let them know she had decided to step down as coordinator.
Some of Bowman’s volunteers say they agreed with her decision to shut down the food banks.
Luanne Solares, 71, a volunteer at the Oakhurst, Coarsegold and Raymond food banks for the past three years, echoed Bowman’s claims, describing many occasions where the food banks received “rotten” food.
“We’re standing there and we’re wanting to help and then we realize ‘we can’t give this crap out,’” Solares said.
Eight other volunteers have come forward to the Sierra Star in support of Bowman’s allegations.
Food banks denies allegations
Robin Allen, communications specialists for the Central California Food Bank, said Bowman’s claims were “not true.”
Allen said the organization has a dedicated quality control coordinator that inspects the food before it leaves to its distribution sites.
“It’s a very important part of what we do, inspecting what goes out. When food is donated, stuff needs to be sorted and that does take time on the volunteer side and that can be a challenge, but we are very diligent about what we’re sending out,” Allen said.
The Sierra Star requested food quality documentation from the Central California Food Bank, but the organization declined.
The food bank’s Chief Operations Officer Natalie Caples responded with a written statement refuting Bowman’s claims.
“Until she contacted us in late December to discontinue the distributions, we were not aware that Mary was having any food quality issues because she had not communicated any concern to our Programs Supervisor, or our CCFB driver that remains on site during every distribution in these two communities,” Caples said in an email.
Allen expressed gratitude for Bowman’s years of service to the two food banks.
“We’re thankful and appreciative of all the work that Mary (Bowman) did and we look forward to finding volunteers to continue the hard work that she laid the foundation for,” she said. “She transformed that community by helping feed so many people.”
Allen said a search is already underway to find a replacement coordinator, and the organization hopes to return to holding the food distributions in Oakhurst and Coarsegold as soon as next month.
Allen could not confirm if the food banks will continue to be hosted at the same two locations.
Bowman said she approached the Central California Food Bank with her grievances and was promised better food, but never received it. She claims the food banks do not prioritize the food banks in the mountain communities.
In her statement to the Sierra Star, Caples said no other Madera County food bank had reported any spoiled food.
But David Fisher, 75, coordinator for the food bank run out of the Grace Community Church in North Fork, said his food bank has experienced the same problems for the past three years.
“It seems like when we get the food shipped up to us, we get either a whole bunch of one thing and very little of another, or the food they send up is so bad that you have to pick through it to get enough good stuff to give to somebody,” Fisher said. “I don’t know what they give down in Fresno, but I’m sure they get pretty good food down there.”
Fisher said that while he has not formally complained about the food, he has been forced to send plenty of food back to Fresno and made his issues known with the delivery drivers who deliver the food from Fresno.
Their distribution date for Fisher’s food bank is the fourth Tuesday of each month.
Fisher said he will step down as coordinator of the food bank if the deliveries continue to be unsatisfactory.
Central California Food Bank, which feeds about 280,000 people in Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties each month, could struggle to feed those people that rely on them because of the government shutdown.
If the shutdown extends into late January, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps, could bring a 40 percent cut of benefits. Without food stamps, many Central Valley residents could turn to the food bank for their meals.