The longest line in La Verne isn’t the one leading into a Bonita football
or basketball game, to Target on Black Friday or Del Taco on Taco Tuesday. It’s
the line of people, devastated by the long recession waiting for food to be
distributed on the first and third Wednesdays of every month by Sowing Seeds for
Life, a nonprofit organization founded by Vicki Brown, the CEO of DPI Labs, a La
Verne aerospace company.

When the organization sprouted
in 2007, Sowing Seeds fed about 1,000 families a month. Last year that number
increased to about 2,000 families. This year the total has swelled to 5,000
families a month or about 60,000 people a year, about twice the size of La
Verne’s population. See La Verne Online’s earlier story (From Go Getter to Go
Giver) by clicking on

http://www.laverneonline.com/2009/06/04/vicki-brown-the-go-getter-who-became-a-go-giver/
.

On the first Saturday in December, Sowing Seeds distributed staples and
toys to about 1,700 people in Ganesha Park, sort of an early Christmas present
to the community. It would have held the event in La Verne, but there was no
park in La Verne large enough to serve those in need. Sowing for Seeds’ normal
food pantry is held in the parking lot of DPI Labs at 1350 Arrow Hwy.

“We have people line up at 7 in the morning, but distribution doesn’t take
place until 2:30 in the afternoon,” said Jim Anderson, Volunteer Coordinator for
Sowing Seeds. “Very rarely do we run out of food. We have a few times because we
didn’t anticipate the crowds as big as we had, but we usually have something for
everyone.”

The hungry can still obtain emergency food if they’re unable to attend the
regular first and third Wednesday distribution days. “We just ask that they call
us in advance,” added Anderson. Sowing seeds also passes out personal products
from baby diapers to adult diapers, from baby strollers and car seats to walking
aids, whatever it can get its hands on.

To participate in the food pantry program, people need only sign a
declaration stating they meet the organization’s low-income criteria.
Distribution works on the honor system. In other words, if you weren’t eligible
for the food but were determined to cart home some turkey drumsticks or sausage
patties, you could probably get away with the low crime and misdemeanor.

Sowing for Seeds has bigger issues to deal with, like paying for all the
food it distributes. While much of the food is donated by the Los Angeles
Regional Food Bank, the nonprofit still has to rent trucks to pick up the food.
The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank also charges Sowing Seeds about 20 cents a
pound on average, costs that helps defray the L.A. Food Bank’s rent.

In December, Sowing Seeds has been collecting about 20,000 pounds of food a
week. So even though the food is essentially free, it still costs about $4,000 a
month to pick it up and distribute. When the organization has extra money, which
isn’t often because donations have been lean this year, the funds might go to
purchase an additional freezer. With more freezer storage, Sowing Seeds can
store and eventually distribute more frozen products such as turkeys, hams and
chickens.

Recently, Nestlé’s called, informing Sowing Seeds it could come pick up 22
palettes of bottled water. Sowing for Seeds rented two pick-up trucks from
Penske leasing at the nonprofit rate. “To get 22 palettes of water for $150, we
couldn’t say no,” said Brown. If the money’s not there, Brown often reaches into
her own pocket to make up the shortage.

Fortunately, she’s not the only one who sees the need. Von’s regularly
contributes fresh bread and produce, and other organizations are donating their
dollars and time, including Wells Fargo, Bonita’s Interact Club, Ramona Middle
School and the California Conservation Corps, to name but a few.

Sowing Seeds receives about 12 times the normal allotment of food from the
Los Angeles Regional Food Bank because it has gotten really good at distributing
food. DPI Labs is a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) -approved facility
that is used to passing tough audits. When it collects the food, it has a great
track record of getting it to people most in need. Dollar-for-dollar goes to
feeding the hungry.

Exactly 100% of the food and donations we collect goes to people who need
help,” said Anderson, who doubled as Santa Claus (don’t tell the kids) at
December’s Christmas in the Park event.

Sowing Seeds has also trained satellite food pantries and shelters in the
area on how to improve their own programs. By teaching other organizations,
Sowing for Seeds can help build a stronger safety net to catch those who have
stumbled and fallen in the current economy.

Like any relatively new organization, Sowing Seeds is experiencing its own
growing pains. Giving food to the community is not as easy at seems. Parking
issues have cropped up, and other logistical problems have arisen because of the
sheer volume Sowing Seeds feeds each month. It’s not unheard of for a freezer or
a fork lift to break down. Nor does its need for volunteers and donations go
away after the holidays. When the first food bank day for 2010 arrives on
Wednesday, Jan. 6, another 30 to 50 volunteers will be needed for packing,
sorting, setting up, breaking down, and all the other labor-intensive activities
of running a major food distribution center.

Then there’s still the issue of Brown having to run an important aerospace
company, which among other things, furnishes cockpit instruments for Air Force
One, the plane on which the President of the United States travels.

For now keeping precision electrical components and cans of kidney beans
separate hasn’t been a problem, but Brown dreams of taking her humanitarian task
to the next level. She would love for an architect and an engineer to help her
develop pro bono an expanded warehouse so Sowing Seeds could conduct its food
distribution inside instead of under makeshift tents in DPI’s parking lot. As a
result, more room would open for parking and food wouldn’t have to be shuttled
from the DPI warehouse out to the parking lot. She has the land; she just needs
a better building. In this expanded warehouse, Sowing Seeds could perhaps run a
community store that low-income people could access for emergency food more than
just twice a month.

As exciting as that expansion dream is, Brown is even more enthusiastic
about a new government program called Transitional Subsidized Employment (TSE),
which is designed to take people from the bread lines to the employment lines,
earning $10 an hour for 40 hours a week over an entire year. Brown has been
approved for 40 jobs and has already put eight people to work in the
welfare-to-work program. These trainees work alongside DPI Labs employees,
learning document scanning, accounting, warehousing, inventory control, machine
shop and other valuable workplace skills. The government picks up the tab for
the program, and DPI gets a much-needed personnel boost during an admittedly
tough time for her company and her industry.

“In a year from now they are going to have a great resume,” Brown said
inside her board room.

The positions aren’t just make-work jobs. Applicants have to go through a
comprehensive interview process, including drug testing, just as her existing
employees have. As an FAA-approved facility subject to stringent ISO
(International Organization of Standardization), DPI Labs has to meet exacting
standards and regular audits.

“It was a big step for the DPI board to agree to this,” Brown conceded.
“Sowing Seeds is helping people with their basic needs and how to get ahead, and
DPI has the opportunity to hire them, and they are being trained and have a
strong incentive to get out there in the workforce.

“It’s amazing, and we if we get more work, we will certainly want to keep
them here.”

It’s amazing to Brown, that this group that has needed a hand-out and a
hand-up could actually help her company grow, especially in the area of document
scanning and imaging, which has become another niche for the aerospace maker.
Typically, aerospace firms have to retain documents for at least 20 years,
including all original drawings, specs, work orders and purchase orders,
ensuring “the traceability of all the components that go into building an
airplane.” Currently, most of that work is sent out of state, which is business
that Brown believes DPI could bring in house to help the company grow.

Providing some of the people who now stand in line two Wednesdays out of
every month with food and employment keeps Brown engaged and energized.
“Employing people, like giving food, is such a simple concept,” Brown said.

“Now we can be part of the solution as opposed to just handing out
something for free,” Brown said two days before Christmas. “We are going to get
people trained up, and if we can generate revenue for DPI, and if aerospace
picks up, that’s all the more exciting. It’s a great opportunity.”

Christmas is about spreading hope and opportunity, and if that sentiment
should last throughout the year, Brown couldn’t be happier or feel more blessed.

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