Helping hungry families

Chico Food Project collects food regularly to help ease hunger for struggling local families

Left to right: Elena Carmon, Francine Kenkel and Wendy Smith are the energetic triumvirate behind Chico Food Project. ARC of Butte County Executive Director and nonprofit guru Michael McGinnis recently joined Carmon, Kenkel and Smith to round out the organization’s four-person board of directors.

Left to right: Elena Carmon, Francine Kenkel and Wendy Smith are the energetic triumvirate behind Chico Food Project. ARC of Butte County Executive Director and nonprofit guru Michael McGinnis recently joined Carmon, Kenkel and Smith to round out the organization’s four-person board of directors.

Get involved:
Send an email to or call 230-7232 to donate food to and/or be a volunteer with Chico Food Project. The organization accepts only nonperishable food items; most-needed items include canned tuna, soup, beans, chili and juices, as well as jars of peanut butter and jelly, and packages of cereal, flour, sugar, dried pasta and pancake mix. Chico Food Project’s next collection takes place on Feb. 9.

“We’re co-copycats of A Simple Gesture,” offered Francine Kenkel, who, along with Wendy Smith and Elena Carmon, sat down for a recent interview over tea at the Upper Crust Bakery & Eatery to discuss the creation of Chico’s new food-collection program, Chico Food Project.

Kenkel, Smith and Carmon modeled it upon Jonathan and Karen Trivers’ Paradise-based nonprofit food-collection-and-distribution charity, A Simple Gesture, which “was born in December 2010 as a grassroots method to replenish food on the depleting shelves of local food pantries,” as its website puts it (go to to learn more).

After reading articles about A Simple Gesture—the first food-collection program of its kind in California—in both the CN&R (see “Put it in the cool, green bag,” June 2, 2011) and the Chico Enterprise-Record, Kenkel, Smith and Carmon each separately contacted A Simple Gesture offering to donate food via the charity’s signature green bag that participants are asked to fill for pickup once every two months.

As it turns out, Jonathan Trivers suggested to the three Chico women that they team up to start their own similar version of A Simple Gesture in Chico, as the charity serves only the communities of Paradise and Magalia. He offered to give them advice to help them get started (“He’s been our mentor,” all three women said in unison).

Thus, the Chico Food Project was born in August 2011, with the help of Trivers, though it took until October 2012 for the fledgling organization to have its first community food pickup. “It took a year to get everything in place,” said Kenkel, a retired mother of three adult children. “We had to buy [the signature Chico Food Project royal-blue] bags, make brochures, get insurance, do fundraising. We’re still in the process of getting our 501(c)3 nonprofit status.”

Kenkel, who worked until January 2011 as a foster-care social worker at Youth & Family Programs, said that “during the course of that time, I saw that there were lots of hungry families right here in Chico, right here in Butte County. Kids were going to school with no breakfast, no lunch—not even the basics.

“I wanted to do something to make it a more-level playing field for the kids—that’s where my heart is. I mean, if you’re dealing with kids who don’t even have the basics, that’s what motivated me. It hurt my heart.”

Similarly, “the main reason I was interested in [getting involved with Chico Food Project] was because I saw a billboard near Shasta [Elementary] School, where my kids go, that said one in five Americans struggles with hunger,” said Smith. She said that seeing the billboard five days a week “kept working on my heart. … It just got me thinking—‘Wow, one in five? Really? Here?’ I was shocked.”

Smith said she was particularly keen to help local “at-risk families who have lost jobs, and hunger is an issue, especially for their kids.”

For her part, Carmon, a 72-year-old retired registered nurse who is a volunteer floor courier at Enloe Medical Center, said she “wanted to be … an integral part of something. I met these two women and I thought I could help.”

“Our goal is to get food into the hands of needy families,” Kenkel emphasized. To achieve this goal, Chico Food Project—sponsored by the Chico Breakfast Lions Club, Chico Sports LTD, the Discovery Shop, and the Virginia L. Jones Foundation, among others—has partnered with the Jesus Center. “They’re our main partner right now in distributing the food,” said Kenkel, of the Jesus Center’s overseeing of Chico Food Project’s collected food—more than 1,500 pounds in October and December—stored at the Chico Community Food Locker on Longfellow Avenue, which is run by the Catholic Ladies Relief Society.

“The Jesus Center is currently distributing all the food to different agencies and individuals,” said Kenkel. “Our mission is to help struggling families, but the food is made available to all who need it, such as senior citizens.”

Chico Food Project has signed up 467 donors so far.

“People love this program,” Smith said. “It’s not hard to get them to do this. It’s an easy way to share food with others in the community.”

“People are being really generous—such as giving flour, sugar, 12-packs of canned chicken,” said Kenkel.

“They can get stuff on sale,” Smith said. “They can get two-for-one coupons.”

“Just get one extra thing every week and put it in the blue bag,” said Carmon.

“In eight or nine weeks, your bag is full,” said Smith.

Noting that Chico Food Project has enjoyed the help of a number of volunteers, including drivers, and the local Boy Scouts who helped unload and sort food after the organization’s December food collection, Smith captured the spirit of the endeavor when she said, smiling, “The whole thing is a big community effort.”

As Trivers put it, back in June 2011, “The three-legged stool of sustainability has three components—financial or economic, environmental, and the last leg that no one pays attention to is social sustainability.

“When people hear ‘sustainability’ or ‘green,’ they think in terms of the new light bulb or better insulation or ‘paper or plastic?’ But a broader, more compelling definition of sustainability is, ‘How does the community sustain itself by taking care of itself?’ That’s the question.”