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Emergency food drive sets bar high

WINTON — Barbie Sansom and her friends have a tall order ahead of them.

In a week's time, they're hoping to fill a rental truck with donated food items for needy Atwater and Winton residents using an emergency food pantry.

Sansom, the on-site manager for Sunset Self Storage and U-Haul at 6089 N. Winton Way in Winton, is spearheading a Christmas holiday drive that began Dec. 1 to fill a 14-by-7-foot U-Haul truck with food. That's 669 square feet of space to be filled — and only about a dozen sacks have been donated.

"This is my first attempt at philanthropy," Sansom said. "I set the bar high, and we'll see if we can pull it off. No idea is a bad idea when it comes to giving back to the community."

The beneficiary of the food drive is the Emergency Food Pantry in the North Merced area. Penny Gallegos is the volunteer site manager and is hoping what is gathered will help over the Christmas holiday and stretch well into the new year.

"This stays in our community," Gallegos said. "I'd like to thank our church (Atwater First Church of God), the community and the public for helping us."

Gallegos stressed that her organization is an emergency food source, not a food bank. Last year, the Emergency Food Pantry housed at the Fruitland Avenue church helped with 258 emergencies, and she expects the 2011 total to be bigger.

U-Haul's corporate office in Fresno donated use of a rental truck through Dec. 21; Sansom said the idea for filling the truck came to her after she woke up in the middle of the night while pondering how she could fulfill the spirit of giving.

"I personally wondered how I could help," Sansom said. "Not everyone knows where to go to help families. How can you not want to help?"

Sansom said her biggest hurdle is getting the word out about the drive. She said some local businesses have pledged donations to the food drive and fliers have been placed around the Atwater-Winton area. The drive also has been posted on the social networking site Facebook.

Sansom is offering a month's free storage rental for a sizable food donation.

"The Emergency Food Pantry is not a food bank with weekly or monthly giving," Gallegos said. "We give food out in emergencies. It happens a lot.

"What constitutes an emergency? When families don't have food due to fires, disasters or people are homeless and out of work. Atwater and Winton are poor communities and this is a year-round thing."

Sansom's husband, Chris, the self storage center's co-manager, said his family is very much into giving.

"It's a small action that can do a lot of good," he said. "People need to give all year long. People are hungry every day. A can (of food) would be great; a bag would be better."

Gallegos said those receiving help are thankful and that giving can be gratifying. If people have an orange tree in their back yard, the oranges can be donated. She's hoping some people will donate $10 gift certificates from local grocery stores, which would help needy families get milk and other perishables.

Another need expressed is for pet food for poor families' feline or canine companions. Gallegos said the food pantry, started a couple of years ago, helps eliminate duplication of efforts in giving assistance.

She expects more donations as it gets closer to Christmas.

Gallegos moved to Winton 10 years ago from the Lake Berryessa resort area, where she owned a store.

"It (moving here) was one of the best things I ever did," Gallegos said. "I've never met nicer people."

Gallegos said she tries to give a week's worth of food to families that need help. Many of the needy people have trouble with diabetes or lactose intolerance.

She praised a team of three men with the pantry who check out requests for help. These men are available to pick up donations or harvest oranges, for instance, for the food drive.

Barbie Sansom said that while it's important to give during the holidays, families are still hungry after Christmas.

"My goal is to fill the truck," she said. "We ourselves have been in a situation when we were younger when we had to rely on assistance from food charities. We know what it means to be helped by an organization like this.

"We may have a nice Christmas dinner, but not everyone has a family or friends to help them."

Penny Gallegos can be reached at (209) 357-3787 and Barbie Sansom at (209) 358-7712.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or