New food bank opens Monday with expanded hours

June Ponce, executive director of the Watsonville Community Hospital Foundation, speaks at the ribbon cutting ceremony for a new food bank established in the hospital itself. The food bank, known as “Nourish,” is a joint project between the hospital and Second Harvest Food Bank Santa Cruz County. (PK Hattis – Santa Cruz Sentinel)

WATSONVILLE — Harnessing their collective expertise, two nonprofits in South Santa Cruz County have joined forces to provide resources to families in need and fight against regional inequities.

In what officials have called one of the first projects of its kind in the state, Watsonville Community Hospital and Second Harvest Food Bank Santa Cruz County have partnered to open “Nourish,” a new food bank within the hospital itself aimed at streamlining support for mothers, newborns and their families.

Project leaders gathered in front of the hospital Thursday to celebrate the facility’s grand opening with the community the recently-rescued health care provider is meant to serve.

“We, at Nourish, are striving to ensure we build healthy children from the start,” said Second Harvest Executive Director Erica Padilla-Chavez to a crowd of approximately 100 people. “That’s what Nourish is all about.”

Located just to the right after entering the main hospital lobby, the food bank will be open from 1-6 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 9 a.m. to noon on Fridays beginning Monday. The hospital’s address is 75 Nielson St., Watsonville.

A view from inside the new Nourish food bank in Watsonville Community Hospital. Starting Monday, the food bank will be open from 1-6 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 9 a.m. to noon on Fridays. (PK Hattis – Santa Cruz Sentinel)

The facility — which looks like a miniature grocery store complete with canned and dry goods as well as multiple refrigerated cold cases stacked with local produce — offers free food to anyone that visits, but has initially targeted expectant mothers, newborns and hospital patients. Food insecure community members that arrive for a pre- or post-natal appointment will be met with free groceries and connections to other supportive services such as how to sign up for Cal Fresh, recertification at Medi-Cal, information about CalWorks and nutrition education classes. Through a partnership with Amazon, the program also offers free home delivery for the first three months after birth for mothers and families that cannot leave the house.

It may come as no surprise that the family-focused program has come from familial collaboration.

The idea for the joint project was sparked about seven months ago when Padilla-Chavez attended a conference in San Francisco with her sister, June Ponce, executive director of the Watsonville Community Hospital Foundation and the hospital’s then-interim CEO Matko Vranjes.

All three are Watsonville natives and were both born in the very hospital they have now devoted much of their professional lives to supporting. While reflecting on their upbringings and career journeys, the trio began to see some alignment among the missions and services in their respective organizations that, together, could create a unique community benefit opportunity.

“It was amid that conversation that we realized that now as adults, particularly in our positions, we were in a position to help our community,” said Padilla-Chavez.

According to Padilla-Chavez, limited access to nutritious food can lead to a number of health issues including diabetes, obesity and hypertension, all of which disproportionately impact Watsonville and the broader Pajaro Valley region. Knowing that improved nutrition and health status of mothers and children helps produce positive long-term health outcomes, there was also recognition that Watsonville Hospital deliveries the most babies of any birthing hospital in the county. By establishing the food back at the hospital itself, the group reasoned, food insecure mothers and families can more easily connect with the services they need as soon as they need them.

“We have the opportunity to care for our patients now in a way that is not related specifically to the reason they came here to the hospital in the first place,” said Watsonville Hospital CEO Stephen Gray, who was hired last September. “We can take care of the whole person through this program … and that’s really powerful.”

During the new food bank’s recent soft launch, Padilla-Chavez said it served about 20-25 people every day it was open. She said given that the hospital delivers about 900 babies annually, “I can imagine that as more and more service for patients is being offered at the hospital, that volume might grow.”

One local mom that has already utilized the hospital food bank is Angelina Ornelaz, who gave birth to her daughter, Andrea, at the hospital in October.

“I’m very grateful to have this Nourish program available to us in a one-stop location for new moms that need support to help us in a time we need support the most,” said Ornelaz, adding that her 11-year-old son often comes with her to choose the food.

The Nourish program has been initially funded through grants, according to Padilla-Chavez, but there is hope that in the next few months a Medi-Cal reimbursement system can be implemented that, along with continued grant funding, will keep the location running for the long haul.

“You have a baby here or you come to our baby class or you’re going to have a baby, Nourish is for you,” said Ponce. “Come, let’s make sure that from 0-5 (years old) your baby is well taken care of.”

Nourish food bank

Where: Watsonville Community Hospital, 75 Nielson St., Watsonville. To the right after entering the main lobby.

When: Beginning Monday, it is open 1-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to noon Fridays.

Who: Focus is on mothers, babies, hospital patients, but no one will be turned away.


(Original Source: