Safety net

Eileen Thomas

Photo By larry dalton

“The stereotypes that people like to use about the homeless, hunger and poverty just don’t work anymore,” says Eileen Thomas, executive director of Midtown’s River City Food Bank (1322 27th Street, She explains that we live in a time where the demographic that describes “needy” is changing. In fact, the homeless make up only a small percentage of those who take advantage of RCFB’s services. Instead, middle-class Sacramentans—and even those who were formerly doing the donating—have found themselves needing a little help lately. Thomas says, “Sometimes things come up, and you need a little help. Everyone has their rough spots.”

Who does the food bank assist?

Anyone who needs it. The homeless only make up about 10 percent of the people we provide food for. The majority of the people that we serve are families, the working poor, single moms, and people who are employed and facing tough economic situations, like furloughs and foreclosures. We also help a lot of families who are on a fixed income, like seniors who are struggling to make it through to the end of the month.

In addition to that, we help out families who are in crisis, or are struggling because of unexpected expenses or a family emergency. We sort of provide a safety net.

How does someone come to you for help?

Most people we serve are at the federal guidelines of poverty or below. Others are just going through a really difficult time and need our services for the single month or until their next paycheck. They may come once or twice, and then they get back on their feet and don’t come back again. The eligibility is self-disclosed need and income.

We are open five days a week, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. The fact that people know they can come during their lunch hour or right before they pick their kids up from school is a huge convenience.

Tell me a bit about your food program.

It’s a nutritionally balanced, three-day meal package. Usually, the package includes milk, juice, eggs, lots of protein, fruit, vegetables, oats and bread. When people come here, they know that they are going to get enough food to not only feed their family, but also to feed their family healthy and wholesome, nutritionally balanced meals for three days.

What else does the food bank offer?

We have a fairly small shelter program for seniors and families. We have a fund for seniors who have gotten behind on utilities or rent for whatever reason. Usually, we give up to $300 per person, and it’s a one-time deal. We just help them make ends meet and get onto a level where they can continue again. For families, we have three-day hotel vouchers if they’re homeless and need a little bit of time in a safe place to get things together.

About how many people do you help?

We usually exceed 3,000 a month.

Do these same people usually come back each month?

Some do. Usually, families just use us once or twice until they get on their feet. It’s not designed to be a food-dependency program, it’s simply designed to be a help during a difficult time—and now, so many people are having a difficult time.

Tell me about some special memories of helping others?

You’ll never know when you’re going to meet someone who you’ve helped.

I had gone into this used-furniture store and told the guy working there that I was with a nonprofit and that I really needed to find some affordable chairs for our waiting area. He asked me what nonprofit, and when I responded, he said, “The one behind that church? The one in a house?” and he goes on to say, “You guys saved my life!”

He told me about how his wife had left him and his two kids, he had lost his job, and suddenly he was a single dad sleeping in his car with his kids, though it was only one night. He came here, got food, got a motel voucher and a few numbers. He was a very motivated guy, and utilized the services to attain transitional housing and to get back on his feet.

His parting words to me were, “You guys were there to help me, and because you guys were there, my kids never missed a meal or a day of school.”

After all that, you bet I bought those chairs!

People that you come across, or the people that you meet … you never know where they’ve been or where they’re going to be.