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The Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank stepped up to respond to an avalanche of need during the pandemic and now it’s bracing for increased demand for food aid in the years to come without its longtime leader.
Jim Floros, who served as the Food Bank’s CEO for nearly nine years, abruptly left the nonprofit in mid-July without a public announcement or explanation.
Casey Castillo, a nearly 14-year Food Bank veteran now serving as the agency’s interim CEO, declined to explain why Floros departed, saying he could not comment on personnel matters.
Castillo also would not say whether Floros’ departure was related to a May class action lawsuit filed by a former employee who alleged that the Food Bank and staffing company Randstad USA failed to pay staffers for all hours they worked at the correct rates due to mandates to work off the clock, among other issues. The suit suggests that the number of employees eligible to join the action could be more than 25. It doesn’t include specific details on the allegations or exactly when the issues played out.
“We do deny the claims in their entirety, but we are unable to comment further on pending litigation,” Castillo said.
Floros, who had been an outspoken advocate for the Food Bank, did not return multiple messages left by Voice of San Diego last week.
Attorneys representing the former employee, Angel De La Torre, also did not respond to multiple messages.
In the meantime, Food Bank leaders say other longtime executives who remain at the agency, including Castillo, are well equipped to help the nonprofit continue to feed hundreds of thousands of people each month — a number that exploded from about 350,000 a month before the pandemic to roughly 600,000 a month at the height of COVID-19’s economic ravages.
To deal with the need, Castillo said, the nonprofit brought on additional staff and partnered with nearly three dozen food pantries throughout the region that now operate as high-volume distribution hubs, among other moves.
Castillo said the Food Bank is now serving nearly 550,000 people a month but is planning for future upticks along with other challenges, including the halt of enhanced unemployment benefits, ending eviction moratoriums and rising food prices.
“We expect to feed a lot of people throughout the next couple years at a similar pace,” Castillo said.
But sustaining a dramatically bolstered food distribution system is not the only issue confronting the Food Bank.
In a statement, Food Bank board chairman Steve Bernstein wrote that the agency’s board is convening a committee to work with the nonprofit’s executives to “address future leadership of the organization.”
In the aftermath of Floros’ departure, Feeding San Diego CEO Dan Shea — who leads San Diego’s other food bank — said he suspects the leadership change will help the two organizations better partner to tackle the surging food need.
The Food Bank has faced transitions during challenging times before.
More than a decade ago, the food bank lost its certification as an affiliate of national charity Feeding America and former San Diego Food Bank board members rushed to start the operation now dubbed Feeding San Diego just months before the start of the Great Recession.
The San Diego Food Bank later bounced back with the help of long-held U.S. Department of Agriculture contracts, which have long supplied a substantial portion of its food haul, as well as new agreements with 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.
That left San Diego with two thriving food banks largely reliant on different food sources that during the pandemic collectively distributed far more food via mass distribution events, local pantries and other programs than before to meet a skyrocketing need.
Before the pandemic, the San Diego Hunger Coalition estimated that about 25 percent of county residents were considered nutrition insecure due to incomes that fall under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $53,000 for a family of four.
Hunger Coalition CEO Anahid Brakke said that estimate rose to 39 percent during the height of the pandemic — and those who were already struggling face more challenges during the pandemic.
“People that were already food insecure really became even more food insecure,” Brakke said.
To address the crisis, Castillo said, the Food Bank alone distributed the equivalent of 50 million meals over fiscal year 2020-21, up from 35.8 million the year before.
Feeding San Diego, meanwhile, said it distributed the equivalent of more than 40 million meals over fiscal year 2020-21, up from about 26 million meals a couple years earlier.
Data from the Hunger Coalition, which compiles information from both food banks and other sources, shows distributors, including the food banks, delivered 85 percent more meals in November 2020 than they had in January 2020. This March alone, the coalition estimates, those sources collectively distributed nearly 5.3 million meals.
During the pandemic, Brakke said, federal government policies that made it far easier to access benefits such as CalFresh, temporary increases in benefits and dialed-up efforts by the food banks and groups temporarily helped address hunger needs that she and others expect will rise again as pandemic-related aid and policies wind down.
In January 2020, the Hunger Coalition estimated food assistance resources, including CalFresh and the food banks, delivered about 18.5 million meals to San Diegans, whether in the form of assistance or food items. This March, the Hunger Coalition reports those sources provided the equivalent of 32.3 million meals.
Yet they still aren’t meeting the entirety of the need — and advocates who work on food insecurity issues expect things will worsen before they improve.
That puts more pressure on San Diego’s food banks.
“People are definitely hurting, and it’s about to get so much worse, and we have to work closely together to make sure that every single thing that people are eligible for, that they can get that support,” Brakke said.
Brakke, who declined to comment on Floros’ departure, said she is confident San Diego’s hunger relief organizations and philanthropic supporters can come together to address the crisis in a more collaborative way in the months to come.
“I think people are coming out of their silos and looking at ways to work more closely together,” Brakke said.
Indeed, Castillo and Feeding San Diego CEO Dan Shea are set to meet this week to discuss how they can work together and fill gaps.
Castillo and Shea both told VOSD that a merger with Feeding San Diego repeatedly pushed — albeit unsuccessfully — by Floros and other Food Bank leaders in the years before the pandemic isn’t on the table for now.
Floros and others had long suggested the groups might serve more hungry San Diegans if they joined forces.
Castillo said the two food banks have regularly met and collaborated over the years, particularly during the pandemic, to ensure they are “meeting the challenges of a vast rise in food insecurity due to the pandemic.”
Shea told VOSD that he expected Floros’ departure would pave the way for more joint efforts.
“There’s a new spirit of cooperation,” Shea said. “I attribute it to the fact that Floros is no longer there because he never demonstrated interest in actually collaborating before, and my hat is off to the board and management of the San Diego Food Bank for participating in discussions that are going to lead us to better serve the community together.”
Mitch Mitchell, a Food Bank advisory board member who helped revive the agency years ago, said collaboration between the two organizations has improved in recent years but some more expansive suggestions about how the two groups might increase their collective impact together have flailed. (Disclosure: Mitchell is also a VOSD board member.) He now believes that could change.
“There were big ideas that were mentioned and discussed over the last few years that didn’t go anywhere that did create a level of frustration among some of the donors,” Mitchell said. “We now are having serious conversations because we both have this understanding of how much better we need to be over the next few years.”