“I love this job,” Vokki Davenport said as she drove a refrigerated truck filled with fresh food through the streets of Bakersfield. “This is meaningful. It inspires me to keep going and working hard. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

Davenport works as a delivery driver for the Kern County Department of Public Health’s Waste Hunger, Not Food program.

For five days a week, she drives to a series of schools and businesses, picking up leftover food that would have otherwise been thrown away, and she delivers that food to local churches that distribute it to those in need in their immediate communities.

Sometimes, when Davenport drops the food off, the churches hold lunches shortly thereafter. She sometimes sticks around to speak with the men and women who show up.

She knows a thing or two about surviving with the bare minimum.

A few years ago, she and her children were homeless, a life she escaped through the Bakersfield Homeless Center’s Job Development program.

But it wasn’t easy.

“I lived off of basically dumpster diving, recycling and yard sales,” she said. “I learned how to feed three boys with five dollars.”

The types of meals she could make with those five dollars didn’t exactly go far. There were a lot of nights with tuna and macaroni mixes.

Now, though, Davenport is part of a program designed to get nutritious food to those who aren’t able to afford it.

And Kern Public Health plans on ramping up the program beginning next year.

“I see it becoming a very, very phenomenal thing,” Davenport said. “To be a part of it at the beginning is a blessing.”

ROAD TO WELLNESS

Since its launch in September, Kern Public Health has rescued 45,334 pounds of food that would otherwise have been thrown away.

That’s more than 22 tons of food.

“It is unbelievable. It’s exceeded our expectations,” said Kern Public Health spokeswoman Michelle Corson, who oversees the program with her colleague, Lisa Amarillas. “(The donors) all have been surprised at how much they have to donate.”

According to Health Department statistics, 40 percent of all food in America is wasted.

At the same time, the Health Department says 116,000 people in Kern County do not know where their next meal will come from, and one in four children in the county go hungry each night.

The food distribution sites that do exist in the county are not necessarily in the most convenient locations, and those who wish to use their services sometimes need to walk to get to them. This can be difficult, especially if a person does not have access to a car.

“We want to get the food into the neighborhoods that need it the most,” Corson said. “We don’t want people to have to walk long distances to get healthy food.”

Started with a $191,963 grant from Cal Recycle and a $30,000 grant from the Kaiser Foundation, Waste Hunger, Not Food uses two refrigerated trucks to transport food from 10 local schools and two local businesses to about 20 churches.

“The food we get from (Waste Hunger) is stuff like grapes and apple slices, or milk,” said Nick Sartoris, pastor of Riverview Assembly of God Church in Oildale, one of the churches that receives food each week from the program. “I think it’s incredible.”

The church receives food from other organizations to help feed the surrounding community, but Sartoris said much of those donations are snack foods that are not necessarily healthy.

It is difficult for organizations to provide fresh food to those in need due to the difficulty in keeping the perishable food at proper temperatures as it is brought to various distribution centers, Corson said.

Waste Hunger works because the Health Department can certify that the food it transports is kept safe as it moves from the donor to the distribution centers, and it can handle a lot of food.

“There’s not really anybody that we’re aware of that is doing what we’re doing,” Corson said.

All the schools currently in the program are in the Bakersfield City School District, but the Kern High School District and Fruitvale School District, as well as Adventist Health, are in the process of becoming involved early next year and soon another van will be added to handle the additional deliveries.

The Health Department hopes to expand beyond the Subway and Sully’s franchises, both on Coffee Road, that donate to the program at the moment.

“It’s very gratifying to know that the food is not being thrown out, that it’s going toward a good cause,” said Jean Yackley, owner of the Subway that donates multiple times per week. “It’s like this was meant to be.”

Her neighbor, an employee of Sully’s across the street, agrees.

“There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the product,” said Sully’s kitchen manager Peter Karnowski. His kitchen provides grab-and-go sandwiches and salads to Waste Hunger. “To have it go to somebody that needs it, it’s fantastic.”

Sam Morgen can be reached at 661-395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @smorgenTBC.

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