People gather every Wednesday at the Veterans Memorial Building (VMB) in Santa Cruz to serve the community.
Many military veterans cannot afford the food they need. The Santa Cruz American Legion Post 64, part of a national veterans service organization, and the nonprofit Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB) work to ease this burden for local veterans.
Post 64 offers a free “pantry distribution” and hot lunch program, open to all military veterans, who are welcome to bring their spouses or other family members, on Wednesdays from 11 am to 1 pm at VMB. SHFB and other community partners, including the real estate business Sereno Group, are providing support.
Veterinarians receive free groceries, including fresh produce, bread/baked items, and pantry items like flour. With hot lunch, people can eat in or take food to go. A recent lunch menu: BBQ pork sandwich (or vegetarian organic bean and cheese burrito), baked potatoes, coleslaw, and dessert.
Jan Graff and DV “Gunny” Murawsky, both Vietnam War veterans, run the programs and are leaders of the Post. The Post’s current commander, Graff, served in the US Navy. Murawsky, who served as a Marine, is the postal finance officer; Past positions include Commander, Assistant and Judge Advocate.
For the programs to thrive, many volunteers are needed, including veterans Ernie Soto (former US Army combat medic, has helped run the Wednesday pantry for years) and Craig Moeller (an Army veteran from the US menu by hand on a poster each week).
Graff directs that SHFB donations be used for the pantry and lunch.
“If I order 500 pounds of food, SHFB offers free delivery,” Graff said. “They donate fresh produce, canned goods like peaches, refried beans, cereal, lots of things.”
The volunteers go to Costco, which donates items that cannot be sold due to visual blemishes. Oroweat provides bread every week.
“We set up this donation through Post member Gary Castiglioni, who also helps prepare the lunches,” Murawsky said.
All the chefs who help are volunteers. Murawsky regularly drives to San Jose to buy food and restaurant supplies at three wholesale outlets.
The number of participants in the lunch and pantry varies. On a Wednesday in October, 71 people came for lunch and 62 visited the pantry, including a 98-year-old World War II veteran.
“There are a couple of 80-plus-year-old Korean War vets and a lot of Vietnam vets,” Graff said. The rest are from more recent wars and deployments.”
Graff says he takes great pride in helping other veterans.
“Some only have a stove to cook, others live on the street. We had a vet who lived in Boulder Creek who would walk to Santa Cruz every Wednesday for hot food and pantry. He did not like to travel in vehicles. Also, some of my classmates from the class of 1962 from Santa Cruz High come for the pantry.”
The Post operated the Meals program at the County Building in Emeline from 2011 to 2014 and has done this, in addition to the pantry, at VMB since 2014. They served more than 28,800 meals between the two locations in 11 years and distributed more than 21,600 Bags pantry since 2014.
“In addition, we have provided personal hygiene and health items, sundries and clothing,” Murawsky added.
Freezers and refrigerators come from a variety of sources.
“Second Harvest Food Bank recently got a grant and bought a new refrigerator,” Murawsky said. “We also have a refrigerator that Home Depot donated. Years ago, the Santa Cruz Women’s Club was disbanding and generously used its remaining funds to purchase a stove for the Post’s kitchen.”
The Post aims to care for veterans and their families.
“Our salaries are nil, but the gratitude we receive is the currency of the kingdom,” Murawsky said. “Our motto is ‘Still Serving America.’ We also run school rewards programs and state programs for boys and girls.”
SHFB Agency Network Manager Mike Kittredge says everyone at SHFB works hard to ensure that all 80 partner agencies, including American Legion Post 64, are successful in distributing food to Santa Cruz County residents in need. .
“Visiting the Post, I was touched by the unwavering support Post leadership and volunteers showed their fellow veterans,” Kittredge said. “It made me think how much my father, a Korean War veteran, would have benefited from a community like Post 64.”
On October 17, the Food Bank held a conference for partner agencies, “Sowing the Seeds of Hope: Addressing Systemic Food Insecurity in Our Communities.” Sessions included Rethinking and sharing best practices for participant success through pantry distribution practices.
“One of the many great American Legion Post 64 leaders, Gunny, attended this conference and contributed to its success by preparing our members to think about and address food insecurity in new and creative ways,” Kittredge said.
SHFB has two veterinarians on staff. Brent Anderson, a Vietnam War veteran who served in the Navy for three years, is the security coordinator. He ensures that food handling is done in a safe and hygienic manner. Anderson, who joined the SHFB staff in 2018 after volunteering for a year, enjoys working with SHFB team members to bring safe and nutritious food to the community.
“There is a level of dedication to our clients that I have never experienced before,” he said.
Being a veteran informs his job, he added.
“I think about how many vets are homeless and need food or just companionship,” Anderson said. “I know that the work that the Food Bank does reaches some of them.”
Veteran Brandon Coffin has been SHFB’s Director of Safety and Facilities since July 2022. He manages facility support staff and directs the Food Safety and Occupational Safety Programs.
Coffin’s military service in the Marine Corps had a major influence on his career, serving as a diesel mechanic. When he was training a reserve combat engineering unit, “…he really began to get involved in occupational safety and developed a passion for finding safer work processes.”
On October 10, Coffin witnessed firsthand the impact of SHFB’s work.
“There was no better feeling than when I helped with my first drive-thru distribution,” he said. “Being able to provide food in a huge way to members of the community, including vets, reaffirmed my decision to join this team.”
More than 1,000 individuals and families received free food at the Oct. 10 drive-thru at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, the first of several additional food distributions SHFB added at the fairgrounds to meet growing needs. The remaining drive-throughs are on November 21, December 5 and December 19.
American Foreign Legion Post 64, 846 Front St., Santa Cruz
Interested in donating or volunteering? Contact [email protected]708.8511, or Jan Graff at [email protected]
Second Harvest Food Bank, 800 Ohlone Parkway, Watsonville
Interested in donating or volunteering? Call 722.7110 or [email protected]