San Diego’s two major food banks collectively distribute tens of millions of pounds of food and serve hundreds of thousands of hungry San Diegans each year.
One of them, the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank, is convinced a merger with the other, Feeding America San Diego, would better serve the local hunger cause and reduce overhead.
“You put more money toward providing more food,” San Diego Food Bank CEO Jim Floros said. “It’s not only serving more people but there’s also more pounds per person.”
But Feeding America San Diego has made it clear it’s not interested despite multiple appeals from the San Diego Food Bank.
“It’s not in our strategic plan,” said Feeding America San Diego CEO Al Brislain, who took the helm earlier this month. “Our strategic plan is focused on feeding people.”
The two food banks and their missions are inextricably linked. They serve dozens of the same nonprofits, which must take separate steps to access the produce and other goods they provide. Both are central spokes of the county’s emergency food supply network. Both have claimed to be the largest hunger-relief organization in San Diego County.
In fact, one wouldn’t exist if not for the other. Feeding America San Diego was founded in 2007, months after the San Diego Food Bank lost its crucial connection with Chicago-based Feeding America, then known as America’s Second Harvest.
Fearing the food bank would collapse, former San Diego food bank board members rushed to start their own operation and that new organization created its own affiliation with Feeding America.
But the San Diego Food Bank didn’t collapse – it bounded back with the help of long-held federal Department of Agriculture contracts, which supply about half its annual haul, as well as new agreements with grocers and other food sources. The nonprofit became the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank after philanthropists Irwin Jacobs and Steve Cushman paid off the mortgage for the nonprofit’s Miramar warehouse.
So, instead of one food bank on its death bed, San Diego now has two thriving ones. The two organizations are providing at least three times the goods the region’s singular food bank once supplied. Last year, each food bank distributed about 22 million pounds of food to local pantries and soup kitchens, and through other programs.
As the two nonprofits increased their local impact, some of their leaders considered a merger.
Donors have long asked whether such a marriage would be possible in San Diego, Floros said.
In 2009, the two food bank boards even formed a committee to investigate the possibility. A San Diego Food Bank staffer was assigned to analyze the two nonprofits’ finances and concluded a merger could save nearly $980,000 annually in overhead.
Then the conversation stopped.
Larry Sly, a Feeding America San Diego board member who runs a Concord, Calif., food bank, attributed the halted talks to cultural differences and “the sense that we didn’t need to come together.”
Mitch Mitchell, co-chair of the San Diego Food Bank’s advisory board, said both nonprofits had concerns about the others’ operations and structures but Feeding America’s disinterest ultimately ended the discussions. (Mitchell is also a Voice of San Diego board member.)
“We thought if we can go toward this greater vision as one unit then San Diego will benefit from that focus,” said Mitchell. “At the time, we seemed to be more ready to do this than the officials at Feeding America.”
A few years later, then-San Diego Food Bank board member Vince Kasperick bankrolled a University of San Diego project that focused on ways local hunger organizations could better collaborate.
The initial September 2013 report highlighted inefficiencies associated with the two food banks, noting their warehouses are just three miles apart and that they required nonprofits that relied on them to use separate applications and reporting systems.
The USD report listed many ways the food banks and other entities in San Diego’s hunger network could work together. A merger of the two food banks was among the suggestions from a group of stakeholders who participated in the project.
As the meetings with USD were under way, the San Diego Food Bank tried to kick off another merger discussion with Feeding America San Diego.
“I truly believe there is a much greater good to be served by the synergy our two great organizations can produce as one,” then-San Diego Food Bank board chair Bruce Hollingsworth wrote in a May 2013 letter to then-Feeding America San Diego board chair Troy Zander. “The hungry are the losers if we can’t achieve such a needed task.”
Zander responded with his own letter – six months later – saying his nonprofit had decided a merger didn’t make sense.
“Although we recognize the potential cost savings of a merger, it is clear that our partners, clients and the local community have benefited greatly from the existence of two hunger-relief organizations,” Zander wrote. “We are also aware that the effort required to fully consider and implement a merger can be extremely time-consuming and can distract us from our shared mission.”
Zander wrote that his board was eager to collaborate with the San Diego Food Bank as discussed in the USD study, though he didn’t offer specifics.
Zander referred questions about the letter to Feeding America San Diego staff. A handful of other current Feeding America board members, including Sly, didn’t respond to inquiries about the 2013 letter exchange.
“I have only been with FASD for a few weeks, but I trust that our board of directors thoroughly evaluated it and made a decision with the community and our clients as the highest priority,” Brislain, the Feeding America San Diego CEO, wrote in an email.
San Diego Food Bank leaders say they tried to spark informal merger conversations again earlier this year after then-Feeding America San Diego Executive Director Jennifer Gilmore stepped down.
Feeding America San Diego leaders again made it clear they weren’t interested, Floros said.
Gilmore declined to comment on past merger discussions but said she believes greater operational efficiencies – and perhaps a merger – may be the right move in the future. There are only so many philanthropic dollars for the cause and the need is growing, she said.
Gilmore and officials who work with both food banks say they’re excited about the work both are doing through a Price Charities grant in City Heights.
The two-year grant has allowed the food banks to jointly hire a staffer to set up a new system to better track the needs of City Heights residents who rely on the food banks and other nonprofits for meals, and more easily gauge what the food banks must provide. Many of the nonprofits involved use both food banks, and Price Charities urged them to apply for the grant together.
The pilot program has shortened food lines and provided both food banks with data that helps them better serve City Heights residents, said Vanessa Ruiz, the San Diego Food Bank vice president overseeing the program.
Ruiz and Brislain of Feeding America said the food banks are now discussing how they might implement the system elsewhere.
“My focus is on what we can do to reduce the number of families facing hunger in San Diego County and that’s where I’m putting my efforts. If it means strategic collaborative efforts with whoever it (may) be out there, that’s what we want to do,” Brislain said. “We can’t do it alone.”
Nonprofit experts say the two food banks must consider more drastic collaborations.
One of them is Pat Libby, the former USD nonprofit institute director who was the lead author of the 2013 report.
“From my perspective, it would be much more efficient if the organizations either were to merge or were to have merged systems so that the food would flow more easily to people in need,” she said.
The close proximity of their warehouses, which serve a county that spans more than 4,000 square miles, drives home the inefficiency, Libby said.
Robert Egger, a nonprofit expert who’s led hunger-focused charities in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, said food banks nationwide will need to become more efficient as the population they serve, namely retiring Baby Boomers without significant retirement savings, grows.
“Every hunger organization has got to look in the mirror and say, ‘How will we feed more people better food for less money?’ And if two groups can look each other in the mirror and say, ‘We can do that independently and separately,’ that’s fine,” Egger said. “If there’s any question that they could better do it by merging, then they should run to the negotiating table to figure out how to come together.”
The North County Food Bank, which had delivered the equivalent of about 1.5 million meals annually, recently announced it’d join forces with the San Diego Food Bank for that reason.
“(San Diego Food Bank) has access to the types of food that individuals in North County need,” said Lita Moore, who leads North County Community Services, the group that previously ran the food bank.
The San Diego Food Bank estimates the merger will help the groups serve 30,000 to 50,000 more San Diegans a month.