EL CENTRO – The Imperial Valley is one of the most productive farming regions in California, thriving as an economic and agricultural engine where produce and grains are distributed throughout the world. Yet, inside the communities of the same Valley, families struggle with hunger daily.
As reported by the Feeding America organization on the County Maps of the Child Food Insecurity in California site, 17.8 percent of the population and 35.4 percent of children in the Valley in 2013 did not have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. In those cases, 16 percent of children who were food insecure were most likely not income eligible for federal nutrition assistance. With those astonishing numbers, various organizations and restaurants work together to defeat hunger in the community.
In 2003, the Olive Garden Italian Restaurant created in 2003 the Olive Garden Harvest, a program committed to help communities fight hunger across the nation, but from a more personal aspect of each restaurant helping the people in their own neighborhood, according to representatives.
Through the Harvest program, more than 800 Olive Garden restaurants partner with a local non-profit organization or food bank and every week, donate good quality, surplus food that is not served to guests and is still considered in fresh condition. As of now, Olive Garden restaurants have donated 37.8 million pounds through the program.
Leo Hurtado, general manager of Olive Garden in El Centro, noted that the process of preparing the food for donation is simple – they chill it, freeze it, then prepare it for “harvest.”
“The team and I are very proud to give back to the community because we’re in a position where we can help and it’s a place that we live and work at and that’s important,” said Hurtado.
In addition to the Olive Garden Harvest program, they also have a partnership with Feeding America. Olive Garden’s parent company, Darden Restaurants – through Darden Foundation – recently donated $1.7 million to Feeding America to further hunger relief efforts. The donation was made on behalf of the restaurants, with $841,000 donated on behalf of Olive Garden locations.
El Centro manager Hurtado remarked that since the opening of the restaurant in 2013, over 12,000 pounds have been donated to various organizations across the Valley.
Between the kitchen and chefs cooking daily, Olive Garden restaurant in El Centro prepares and packs up any protein-like surplus food like lasagna, chicken, meatballs, or sausages and donates it to the local Salvation Army organization every Tuesday in El Centro.
Carmen Aviña, social services clerk for Salvation Army in El Centro said, in general, they receive between 50 to 100 pounds of donated food a week and serve it to homeless people Monday to Friday.
“We are very grateful for every donation and that we’re able to provide and serve to the less fortunate of our community,” said Aviña.