Changemaker Series: Second Harvest Food Bank And Their Energy Boost Smoothie

Changemaker Series: Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. As a chef, food blogger, and mom, food is important to me. Food is something we all need, and for many of us, good food is readily available. But this is not the case for everyone, even in an area like Silicon Valley. Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties is my featured Changemaker for July. Based in Silicon Valley, this is one of the largest food banks in the nation and it is doing some groundbreaking things. Despite a lot of local wealth, the high cost of living means that hunger and malnutrition are a significant and often silent issue.

The Food Bank was founded in 1974. It provides food to over 250,000 people each month, more than half of whom are children and seniors. By collaborating with a network of 300 partner non-profit agencies overseeing over 900 different food distribution sites, the Food Bank distributes more than one million pounds of nutritious food each week to people struggling to put food on the table. Second Harvest Food Bank is a member of Feeding America, a network of U.S. food banks and food distribution programs.  The Food Bank operates a multilingual toll-free hotline (+1-800-984-3663) to help clients find food programs.Second Harvest Food Bank Half of the food that Second Harvest distributes is fresh produce–a greater amount than almost any other food bank in the country.  But they do not just provide food to clients. They are also trying to teach good nutrition. The Food Bank “understands that food is medicine and nutritious meals matter. Food-insecure households served by the Food Bank can be caught in a vicious cycle connecting poverty, health, and food insecurity. In response, the Food Bank has developed a dynamic nutrition education program to promote healthy and safe food for those that need it most.”

The Food Bank follows a Healthy Food & Beverage Policy: strives to increase the distribution of protein, provide more low-sugar whole grains, distribute essential plant-based oils and spices to promote healthy cooking, and maintain 50%+ distribution of fresh produce.  In a move that my previously featured Changemaker Dr. Marion Nestle would approve of, the Food Bank only distributes healthy beverages, no soda. According to The Santa Clara County Public Health Department, “The alignment of the policy with the latest nutritional science and the forward-thinking concept of integrating nutrition and food security makes Second Harvest Food Bank a leader among food banks locally and nationwide.

The Food Bank also utilizes a Food Resources Team regarding menu planning, to help encourage healthy eating. The Food Bank hosts cooking demonstrations and food tastings, conducts education on USDA dietary recommendations, and provides simple easy-to-follow recipe cards. Second Harvest Food Bank is leading the charge for comprehensive nutritional change.

Second Harvest Food Bank

From left to right: Diana Garcia, Nutrition Education Manager in Santa Clara County, Luiza Naslausky, Nutrition Education Manager in Santa Clara County, Alex Navarro, Nutrition Education Manager in San Mateo County, and Elena Hollander, Director of Community Nutrition

Second Harvest Food Bank’s nutritional program is headed by Elena Hollander, who is their Director of Community Nutrition. Her role is to ensure that the Food Bank meets its goals of making healthy food safe and “accessible”—including breaking down how to prepare the healthful foods clients receive.

This approach is breaking new ground. More than half of the Food Bank’s clients report a member of their family has high blood pressure. 1 in 3 reports that someone in their household has diabetes. Hollander’s nutritional team is stacked with experts to support her in helping provide these individuals with healthful meals.

I had the opportunity to correspond with Hollander about Second Harvest Food Bank and the critical work she and her incredible team are doing in their nutritional program. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Simmer + Sauce: Second Harvest Food Bank is “leading the charge” in looking for healthy ways to end hunger. Food banks have been around for a long time. What prompted the greater focus on nutrition? 

Second Harvest Food Bank: Second Harvest has long had a focus on nutritious food and we were the first food bank to have a full-time nutritionist! In recent years, the focus on health has increased. We added healthy food to our mission statement, implemented our Healthy Food and Beverage Policy, and have grown the scope and size of our Nutrition team.

I think what prompted the greater focus on nutrition is that food banks are no longer serving clients in one-time emergency food crises, but rather clients who are chronically food-insecure due to factors like the high cost of living. Our clients also have higher rates of diet-related diseases than the average American. For example, 33% of clients report that someone in their household has diabetes, which is three times the national average. Moreover, clients have fewer healthcare resources to address these illnesses. So we have an opportunity, and some might say an obligation, to play a major role in the diets of community members and help them to be healthy in ways they need and want.

Simmer + Sauce: As Director of Community Nutrition, you oversee the large undertaking of promoting better nutrition within Second Harvest, your affiliate agencies, and even for those seeking food assistance. What is your approach to teaching “better health” across those platforms?

Second Harvest Food Bank: We like to make sure that our programs and lessons are effectively tailored to the needs, abilities, and preferences of our clients so they are easily (and joyfully!) able to implement our nutrition lessons. To do this, we offer nutrition education in a wide variety of formats, languages, and content areas. For example, we have online cooking videos, six-week in-person classes in Spanish and English, one-time classes on everything ranging from Healthy Eating for Older Adults to Shopping Smart on a Budget, and educating clients while they wait in the food line, which can include cooking demonstrations and handing out materials in at least four different languages. I think a key to our success is that we meet clients where they are, like food distribution sites and community centers, and are sure to pair our education with free abundant healthy food in their neighborhood. All told we teach more than 40,000 clients a year using these methods.

Simmer + Sauce: The food bank world operates on donations, including food. How have companies reacted to your new policies for only accepting healthier items? 

Second Harvest Food Bank: Yes, our Healthy Food and Beverage Policy does say that we will no longer accept sugar-sweetened beverages and candy. This is because we’ve committed to helping our clients lead healthy and productive lives. Items that are high in sugar and unhealthy are not aligned with our goals. Moreover, Second Harvest has limited warehouse space and resources so we need to make sure that we use these resources for healthy items. Large food donor companies have been very understanding of why we instituted this policy. I think this is because the health movement has been gathering such momentum, especially in the Bay Area, so donors were not surprised to see that we are asking for healthier items. So far, we have not lost any donors and we did not purposefully end relationships (a few were giving us only candy and soda so we had to end relations with them after the Policy was passed).

Simmer + Sauce: Second Harvest helps feed a lot of food-insecure children. What are some things that you are doing to help reach kids in need? What can concerned citizens do to help? 

Second Harvest Food Bank: Yes, children make up a large percentage of our clients! We provide food to an average of nearly 89,000 children every month of the year. We have several programs focused on reaching kids and their families. We have family programs and school pantries where Second Harvest provides a menu of healthy items, such as chicken, eggs, milk, whole grains, and a ton of fresh produce, to families with children. We also have a Community Engagement and Policy team that works with schools to help them provide federally funded school breakfast, lunch, snacks, supper, and summer meals.

A fun fact is that we define children as those living at home under age 26 so the types of families and children can look very different. For those who are in their late teens and early twenties, we recently opened up several college pantries as we found that college students are one of the groups that are most in need.

Help with these programs is always appreciated and there are several ways to contribute! Financial donations are great because we can stretch every dollar donated to provide $3 worth of food. Other ways to contribute are volunteering with us or donating food from our Most-Needed Foods List (

Simmer + Sauce: Like many non-profits, Second Harvest relies heavily on cash donations and volunteers. How can people best support Second Harvest’s efforts? 

Second Harvest Food Bank: Yes! Aside from donating cash ($1=2 meals!) or food and volunteering as I mentioned before (, there are several other ways to help. You can host a Food and Fund Drive or talk to your company about a corporate sponsorship. You can also be a voice by advocating for those who are impacted by hunger. You can sign up for “advocacy alerts” ( to be aware of when/where advocacy is needed and how you can help. Finally, you can join our social media conversations and help spread the word about what we do ( You can learn about all of these opportunities on our website (

The smoothie recipe featured here is an example of the healthy easy-to-follow recipes Second Harvest Food Bank provides. This simple, yet delicious, Energy Boost Smoothie is a great go-to option for anyone trying to be mindful of what they are eating. Easy to prepare and made with readily available and inexpensive fresh fruit and vegetables., this is a wonderful Summer recipe everyone will love.

energy boost smoothie

As I have blogged about this before, my family is Jewish and our older son celebrated his bar mitzvah in May. My son decided to donate a portion of the gift money he received to Second Harvest Food Bank. He decided this after fasting during Yom Kipper last Fall and feeling firsthand the discomfort of not having food. He felt what hunger can do to you–a child in particular. After a lot of research on Charity Navigator, he decided on Second Harvest Food Bank because he liked how it used its donation dollars to the fullest. He made a wise choice. So, this feature has double significance to me, being an organization I believe in–as does my son.  If you are interested in making a financial donation to The Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, please click on this link for more information. To learn more about some of the important work Second Harvest Food Bank is doing regarding direct service and food assistance programs please click on the links below.

Second Harvest Food Bank Direct Service Programs: 

Family Harvest (monthly food assistance to low-income families with children), Brown Bag (weekly food assistance to low-income seniors), Kids N.O.W. (nutrition on weekends provides children ages 6-18 with healthy foods to take home on Fridays), and Produce Mobile (Fresh fruit and vegetable delivery to low-income households with limited access to grocery stores).

Second Harvest Food Bank Food Assistance Programs:

Food Connection Hotline (connects callers to multilingual operators to assist in finding local food programs), Nutrition Education (health and food safety workshops for sister agencies and clients and Food Stamp Outreach(assists eligible households in applying for food stamps expediting their access to food).

I would like to thank Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties for allowing me to feature them in my Changemaker series. A special thanks to Elena Hollander for taking the time to work with me on this feature. I would also like to thank Lynne Clarence, a Major Gifts  Officer at Second Harvest, for the background she provided on this remarkable organization and how welcoming she was to me and my family when we volunteered at the Second Harvest facility—you are all Changemakers to me!

About the Author

Andrea Potischman

I am a professionally trained NYC chef turned CA mom and food blogger. I post about real food, with doable ingredient lists that are family friendly.

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