S.F. Marin Food Bank makes difference with Season of Sharing aid

Not long after Karen Fabec came from Pennsylvania to California in the 1970s, she married and moved to Willits in Mendocino County, where she and her husband lived off the land and grew their own organic produce. Four decades, two marriages, two children and a string of jobs later, Fabec, who once envisioned a career as a singer-songwriter and then as a graphic artist, is still trying to carve out a meaningful life for herself. Fruits and vegetables figure into it, but not in the way she might have once expected.

The 65-year-old — a librarian and student at City College of San Francisco who lives in government-assisted housing in Marin City — gathers produce every week, but not always from a grocery store.

When times are tough, and the cost of buying food interferes with other necessities, such as repairs on her 15-year-old car, Fabec leans on the food pantry at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Sausalito. There, bell peppers, celery, oranges, Trader Joe’s salads and other fresh foods, along with whole wheat pastas and canned sauces, are among the foodstuffs stocked with the help of the San Francisco Marin Food Bank.

“We’re very fortunate to have affordable housing,” said Fabec, slicing vegetables for soup on a recent weekday in the kitchen of the small, sparsely furnished apartment, devoid of holiday decor or gifts, that she shares with her 43-year-old daughter, Shandi Anderson, and her grandson, Evan, 15.

Looking on, Anderson, a former mental health and recovery counselor who is not working due to disability, noted that without the Food Bank, “we would not have had food in the house, literally, at times.”

“Sometimes we have plenty of money to buy food,” Fabec countered, “and sometimes we don’t.”

2.52 million meals

The family is among 225,000 clients served this year by the San Francisco Marin Food Bank, one of several in the nine-county Bay Area supported by The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing Fund. Created in 1986 and the largest newspaper-based charitable fund of its kind in the United States, it raised a total of $7.6 million in 2014.

The fund distributed $1.2 million to the region’s food banks for the 2014-15 fiscal year. That money, in turn, provided more than 2.52 million meals to people trying to make ends meet, according to Food Bank calculations that estimate 2.1 meals for each donated dollar.

During the past 29 years, the Season of Sharing Fund has been instrumental in allowing the San Francisco Marin Food Bank to take a risk that has worked: It uses The Chronicle’s donation to buy produce from farmers (at 8 or 12 cents a pound, to offset the cost of harvesting and delivery) to bolster pantries with fresh fruits and vegetables, rather than canned goods alone.

Lots of produce

At first, it was oranges, followed by vegetables and then nectarines, peaches and berries in the summer. Produce now accounts for two-thirds of all food the agency distributes.

“It costs more money to handle perishable food — it has to be refrigerated and it has to turn over more quickly,” said Paul Ash, executive director of the San Francisco Marin Food Bank. “Knowing we had those Season of Sharing funds really made it possible for us to jump in and start taking truckloads of produce. Knowing we had tens of thousands of dollars toward this experiment made all the difference in the world.”

The produce is not always organic, but it is fresh, and that is important to Fabec.

“I’m into organic,” she said, “but I can’t always afford it.”

The road from Willits to Marin City was a long one. After a divorce from her first husband, Fabec moved with her daughters to Santa Cruz to be the lead singer in a New Age band. She studied to be a sound engineer and worked as an electronics technician, soldering telephone headsets for companies such as Plantronics. She wed a second time, but the marriage — fraught with domestic violence — didn’t last. Her husband left her, she said, and the family was split on two coasts.

Hope of bachelor’s degree

Over the years, Fabec studied broadcasting and graphic design and earned an associate of arts degree, but never found her way into a satisfying career because, she said, she lacked the bachelor’s degree that employers wanted to see on her resume.

To that end, she has been taking algebra at City College, hoping to apply for a bachelor’s program elsewhere and complete her degree. To help pay for the apartment she shares with her daughter (who has health issues and lives on Social Security), Fabec obtained a certificate in library information technology and landed two temporary library jobs last year, one at the San Francisco Public Library and the other at City College. Both jobs have now ended.

“What I’m really talented at is video animation and graphic design — those are what I love,” she said wistfully, after tossing vegetables into a pot of water. “I’m doing a library job because it’s something I feel I can handle.”

“Mom,” interrupted Anderson, “even if you don’t get hired for your dream job, I’m so proud of you for studying what you wanted to learn, not just doing the drudgery.”

Fabec turned to face her.

“One needs to make a living, too,” Fabec said. “I would like to have enough money so that if this car craps out, I could get another secondhand car.”

Fabec paused. “I still have a lot of energy and health, energy and life left in me. Should I just sit around and wait until I turn 70, or should I just keep going? So I just keep going.”

Carolyne Zinko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Follow her on Twitter: @CarolyneZinko

The original article can be found here.