Volunteers at the Old Mission: Kevin Cheung, Martha Lopez, The Berry Man Owner/Founder Guy De Mangeon, Patricia Juin, Fr. Larry Gosselin, and Doris Scoltock-Smeltz. | Credit: Courtesy

The Berry Man Inc., a wholesale produce distributor operating throughout the tri-county area and down to San Diego, is supplying the tri-county area with 7.6 million pounds of fresh produce through a USDA-funded COVID-relief program. 

The $3 billion USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program pays distributors to purchase fresh produce, dairy, and meat products from U.S. producers, package it into family-size boxes, and deliver it to community organizations for distribution to those in need. The Berry Man President Les Clark related that the company bid aggressively, wanting to help community members in need and its own employees.

The company uses its existing supply chain and packages the fresh produce into 38-pound boxes for distribution to organizations, which the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, Food Share of Ventura County, and the S.L.O. Food Bank help it identify. The Berry Man has received two contracts totaling $7.2 million for deliveries from mid-May through August. A third and final round of contracts will soon be awarded. Each week, about 3,500 boxes are distributed to about 25 organizations in Santa Barbara County, more than half of which are in the South County. Ventura County gets a bit more and S.L.O. a bit less, reflective of the respective needs in the area.

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According to Clark, the program has succeeded in doing exactly what it was intended to do — supply fresh produce to those in need while also helping distributors and farmers, who have been significantly impacted by the closure of restaurants, hotels, and businesses that they typically supply. The Berry Man’s business was down 80 percent before these contracts, with employees’ hours cut to one or two days per week. With the initial contract, the company was able to offer all employees their regular hours back. 

The food box contains about a dozen items, which vary depending on availability. As is always the case with The Berry Man, it seeks to buy whatever it can locally, which means about 70 percent of the produce comes from within 250 miles of its Oxnard, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo County warehouses. This week’s selection included apples, oranges, peaches, nectarines, watermelons, zucchini, carrots, onions, and potatoes.

The Berry Man Owner/Founder Guy De Mangeon and President Les Clark | Credit: Courtesy

The produce is not substandard produce, Clark shared, as is sometimes the case with donated food. Rather, this is produce that would otherwise be going to fine restaurants and its other clients. The company strives to obtain the freshest, best-value produce it can, Clark related, especially because the boxes bear The Berry Man’s name.

The company’s diligence has been appreciated by many. It has received an outpouring of gratitude from organizations and recipients, who praise the high quality and variety of the fresh produce. Carpinteria Children’s Project Executive Director Maria Chesley called the produce absolutely beautiful. Old Mission Community Development and Marketing Manager Suzy Plott termed it wonderful and impressive.

During the first week of the deliveries last spring, Clark’s wife witnessed a family sitting on a park bench opening a box, each person with a huge smile on his or her face. Scenes like this, Clark related, make the hassle of government contracting all worth it. One mother shared how her kids take turns opening the box each week because they are so excited to see what’s inside.

Old Mission Santa Barbara started with 100 boxes in June and each week since has requested more because they had run out each time. Finally, last week, with 600 boxes delivered, they had enough for everyone. Cars line up every week starting at 9:15 a.m. for a distribution window that doesn’t start until 10:00 a.m. Father Larry Gosselin and other Friars, The Berry Man Owner/Founder Guy De Mangion and his wife Patricia Juin, Old Mision staff, and volunteers, all masked and gloved, safely distribute the food to recipients, who are provided a mask if they don’t already have one. Old Mission works with seven other nonprofits, who get in line to pick up produce to share with their clients.

John Paul Oliver, vice president of Oxnard-based Pacific Fresh Produce, which has been supplying The Berry Man with produce for the food boxes, shared how with COVID, the market for farmers just crashed, and he and others who supplied restaurants were losing fields. The Food Box program, he related, has really been a blessing in the face of this downturn, and he loves being part of a program that gets nutritious food to those who have lost their jobs and cannot afford groceries.

For more info on The Berry Man, go to theberryman.com/wordpress/.

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