LGBTQ+ Staff heroes at Second Harvest Food Bank – Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY — The entire Second Harvest Food Bank staff works hard to provide essential services and programs to the local community. In honor of Pride Month, here is a portrait of two of the nonprofit’s staff members who are part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Mary Casey

As SHFB’s Chief Human Resource Officer, Mary Casey finds it fulfilling to see the direct impact of the work the Food Bank accomplishes and to work at an organization where everyone doesn’t just talk the talk but walks the walk. For example, at a large-scale drive-through food distribution SHFB organized during the pandemic, the entire staff helped.

Mary Casey (Contributed)

“It was all hands on deck; our CFO was directing traffic,” Casey recalled, getting emotional as she remembered the gratitude from community members—some receiving fresh produce for their families for the first time in weeks. “I love the immediacy of our work, and how vital that is alongside the long-term ‘root cause’ work we’re also invested in.”

Casey, who lives in Santa Cruz with her partner, two children, and extended family, is committed to helping others. She volunteered for years with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest.

“I was also Seattle’s 43rd Legislative District Co-Chair for four years. During the pandemic, my household was a foster family for a wonderful little boy we remain close with,” she explained.

Casey values ​​knowing her work helps the community.

“When we bring on new hires, we give them a kind of Food Insecurity Boot Camp: a list of articles, podcasts, etc. that break down common misperceptions about who is food insecure in our country, and what food insecurity looks like on a daily basis,” Casey said.

People are frequently surprised by a 2014 UCLA study showing that more than 1 in 4 LGBTQ+ adults experience food insecurity.

“That data gets much more severe when you look at LGBTQ+ individuals who are people of color,” Casey said. “Then the numbers go from ‘1 in 4 for white LGBT adults, to 1 in 3 for African American LGBT adults, 1 in 2 for LGBT Native Americans, and more than 3 in 4 for Native Hawaiians.’ That data doesn’t match with people’s conceptions of the LGBTQ+ community. Public perception is often one of affluence: people think of popular TV or film characters wearing designer clothes or living in swanky penthouses. The reality is the LGBTQ+ community is one of the most food insecure demographics in our country.”

Casey appreciates Second Harvest Food Bank for drawing attention to the fact that “…marginalized groups, which include the LGBTQ+ community, are more vulnerable to food insecurity in large part because of the long-term economic impacts of historic and continued discrimination.”

This calling out is aligned with one of Second Harvest Food Bank’s five core values, equity.

“We define equity as [recognizing that] ‘the root causes of hunger are systemic injustices—racism, classism, sexism and more—that create and perpetuate the conditions that sustain food insecurity and poverty.’ We work to ensure everyone has access to the resources they need to succeed, regardless of circumstance, and promote respect for our shared human dignity,” Casey explained. “Second Harvest serves all of the community: anyone is welcome to get food at SHFB. And that’s worth celebrating—during Pride month, or any month.”

Stephanie Widell

Stephanie Widell joined Second Harvest Food Bank last December as the Food Co-op program coordinator for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District’s Family Engagement & Wellness Center. She runs the Food Co-op program and oversees site operations. The center’s partners include Second Harvest Food Bank plus Community Action Board, Salud Para la Gente, and others. There is a market that offers free groceries and living supplies to PVUSD parents and students, plus they provide CalFresh enrollment assistance, nutrition education, additional food resources, and a community mass food distribution the first Saturday of every month.

Stephanie Widell, third from left, stands with UCSC volunteers at the Food Co-op for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District's Family Engagement & Wellness Center.  (Contributed)
Stephanie Widell, third from left, stands with UCSC volunteers at the Food Co-op for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District’s Family Engagement & Wellness Center. (Contributed)

“The space has provided an enormous sense of relief for parents and families, especially with the rising costs of food and overall living,” Widell said. “Serving in this role fills me with joy; knowing we are able to give our neighbors and community a sense of comfort is rewarding beyond words.”

Widell’s identity as an LGBTQ+ community member helps inform her work. Because she recognizes apprehensions that many LGBTQ+ individuals have about utilizing social services, she works to “…create a welcoming, safe atmosphere on behalf of SHFB” and in all aspects of her life.

“Unfortunately, discrimination and homophobia still run rampant among staff and recipients of social services; many transgender bodies don’t feel safe in homeless shelters, public health services, etc. It may be daunting for the LGBTQ+ community to step into these spaces without fear of experiencing these macro-aggressions. SHFB makes a point to promote safety and inclusion in all of the work we do. We support our LGTBQI+ community all year long.”

Working with student volunteers in the co-op is something Widell truly enjoys.

“A handful of the students identify as LGTBQI+. This experience gives them space to exist and helps them feel empowered as they support their own community, helping combat food insecurity in Santa Cruz County,” Widell said.

Born and raised in Watsonville and Santa Cruz, Widell comes from a second-generation Mexican migrant working class family.

“Growing up in this area and having first-hand experience as a person of color genderqueer person living in poverty and utilizing various social services has directly played a role in how I navigate life, work and personal relationships,” Widell said.

She is an active community volunteer.

“I do a lot of abolition-related work in LGBTQI+ spaces that amplifies and supports the advocacy of LGBTQI+ prisoners and raises awareness of the types of violence, transphobia, and assault that inmates experience while incarcerated,: she said. “I host educational workshops, run a pen pal/snail mail program, and raise commissary funds by hosting live entertainment, drag shows, art markets, and musical events in Watsonville and surrounding areas.”

Widell is excited about the co-op’s future plans. “We’re growing our volunteer team and look forward to training PVUSD students and parents to run the entire co-op and aid with food distribution here and at other food distribution sites,” she said.

Also, many student-centered activities and resource fairs are planned at the PVUSD Family Engagement & Wellness Center.

For more information, visit thefoodbank.org and facebook.com/pvusdwellnesscenter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.