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Ember Munson, 8, learns how to make homemade tortillas at FoodLink’s Food Day celebration on Oct. 26, 2019. (Photo: Joshua Yeager)

Ember Munson pedaled the green stationary bike at Tulare County FoodLink as fast as her 8-year-old legs would let her.

With each turn of the pedal, Ember was operating a blender attached to the bicycle – mixing up delicious, healthy smoothies full of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It makes nutrition fun,” her mother, Dorene, said.

The family was one of hundreds who attended the fifth-annual Food Day at FoodLink for Tulare County’s Exeter warehouse.

Food Day is a nationwide celebration of “healthy, affordable food that is produced with care for the environment, animals, and the people who grow, harvest, and serve it.”

FoodLink’s spin on the weekend celebration involved dozens of community partners, local chefs, cooking demonstrations, face painting and other family-friendly activities with sustainably-sourced tacos from Visalia’s Tacos Luchas.

“We want to make sure people are aware of the services (FoodLink) provides, learn about our local food systems — and have fun,” said Nicole Celaya, FoodLink’s CEO.

FoodLink is Tulare County’s only independent food bank. Every month, It distributes 300,000 pounds of food to a network of 30 local pantries serving more than 14,000 residents in their own neighborhoods.

Tulare County is a $7 billion ag economy responsible for growing much of the world’s fruit, yet Celaya says the reality is many families who grow and harvest the Valley’s produce can’t afford to eat it.

“If it weren’t for FoodLink, we wouldn’t have access to fresh produce – it’s not in our budget,” Dorene said. “It’s sad that a bunch of grapes at Save Mart across the street from my house costs $20, but I can get chicken nuggets from Burger King for $1.50.”

The food pantry’s mission isn’t just supplying Tulare County’s hungry with food but teaching them healthy eating habits.

“A big part of (FoodLink’s) mission is getting local produce on the tables of the less fortunate,” said Mitch Milligan, FoodLink board treasurer. “In Tulare County, we grow all this food and produce — we’re a big ag community — but there’s still a real need for nutritious food in the community.”

Cynthia Serna of Tulare learned how to make cauliflower ceviche at one of the event’s dozens of booths.

“I’d never had cauliflower before,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d like it, but it was actually delicious. I can’t wait to try it at home.”

She said she learned about Food Day at a College of the Sequoias’ job fair after recently getting laid off.

“If it wasn’t for FoodLink, I wouldn’t be able to get by and put food on the table for my two children,” she said.

Juana Verduzo of Tulare Works said Serna’s reality is unfortunately all too common in the Central Valley. As the agency’s self-sufficiency counselor, she helps hundreds of struggling families get back on their feet.

“Food insecurity and homelessness are the two biggest problems we see in Tulare County. We want to be as available as possible to the community,” she said

By noon, she’d helped 94 people get information about CalFresh and other county assistance programs. 

“People who use FoodLink’s services often qualify for CalFresh but may not know it,” she said, adding that some fear enrollment because of their documentation status or a perceived stigma around the food-assistance program. 

“The fear is there,” she said. “Community events like Food Day help us reach people where they are and let them know we’re here to help.”

Tulare County has the highest percentage of CalFresh users in the state, about 25%. A similar number live in poverty, according to Census Bureau data.

Celaya said many of those people work hard to provide for their families.

“That’s what people may not understand,” she said. “FoodLink’s users are the working poor, people who just need a little extra help to get by.”

That’s why Donna Stevens, an Exeter senior, said she volunteers with the food bank.

“Here in the Central Valley, we’re the world’s breadbasket — we’re blessed. (FoodLink) helps families get to taste that delicious bounty every day,” she said.

Joshua Yeager covers water, agriculture, parks and housing for the Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance-Register newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @VTD_Joshy. Get alerts and keep up on all things Tulare County for as little as $1 a month. Subscribe today.

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