FREMONT -- Not everyone was happy when unfamiliar fresh foods appeared in the Tri-City Volunteers Food Bank grocery bags, but the new staples helped some 16,000 people through hard times for them and for the group.
Melissa Ponchard -- head of Tri-City -- helped ease the doubters into the new experience, holding cooking demonstrations and handing out samples and recipes for squash, eggplant, brussel sprouts and leafy green vegetables.
Increasing the amount of fresh food even as aid groups everywhere were losing support is one of the special talents that co-workers and others say makes Ponchard such a successful operator of the food pantry. "Melissa always has creative ideas like that," said Aileen Fox, a representative of Cargill Salt, one of the organization's donors. "She thinks outside the box, and she's always looking to offer new services to involve more people."
Ponchard, born and raised in Australia, credits a college professor there for teaching her to ruffle feathers fearlessly. "He taught me the art of the contrarian, how to challenge yourself and others to look at things differently," she said.
Three decades later, she employs that philosophy to help Tri-City Volunteers, the largest of the Alameda County Community Food Bank's 275 food pantries, find new and better ways to serve a growing number of poor residents.
Last year, the organization distributed food to more than 6,000 Tri-City-area families each month, reaching about 16,000 people. With an annual operating budget of $660,000, it relies on cash and food donations from individuals and local companies, Ponchard said.
It hasn't been easy. Ponchard joined Tri-City Volunteers in 2010, just as the recession's job losses crowded food banks with families in need, while its usual donors were cutting back.
"On my first day, one of the first things I had to do was take photos of an empty warehouse to show people that we needed food donations," she said.
Fremont has a reputation as an affluent Silicon Valley city but positive statistics don't help the 6 percent of city residents living in poverty. And the number of those in need seems to be growing, despite the area's wealth, Ponchard said.
In 2009, the food bank distributed food worth slightly more than $250,000, helping some 6,000 people. Last year, it gave out some $8.5 million worth of food. Meantime, the organization doubled its volunteer force, now 1,900 retirees, corporate employees, students and court-appointed workers.
"Volunteers aren't just the lifeblood, they are the organization," she said. "We couldn't do it without them."
She manages 10 employees who keep it all together. "Though they get paid appallingly, they love their work," she said. "They love that we're grass roots."
Ponchard cultivates an egalitarian spirit, saying her web of volunteers, staffers and clients is much like a chain on the ground. "Nobody is above or below you, but we're all linked together," she said. On any given day, Ponchard said she might drive the warehouse forklift, while the receptionist might be asked to deliver food or work a shift in the thrift shop.
"All the staff members are cross-trained," she said. "We do what's necessary."
The food bank aims to eliminate hunger and help its clients become self-sufficient, and Ponchard has played a big role in carrying out that mission, said Doug Swint, Tri-City Volunteers' chairman of the board. "Melissa's energy and ability to keep all the organization's different balls in the air at once is tremendous," he said. "She works far more than 40 hours a week and she does it because she has such a passion to help people."
Part of her success stems from wanting to be challenged, said Michelle Carroll, who runs the Chamber of Commerce's Leadership Fremont class, a nine-month program that Ponchard attended in 2012. Carroll said she makes a point of donating to Tri-City Volunteers because Ponchard impressed her.
"Some people are just dynamic and fun to be around -- that's Melissa," Carroll said. "She walks into a room and lifts it up."
Ponchard, a mother of four grown children, lives in Palo Alto with her husband, Ian Mason. More often than not, though, she's on the eastern side of the Dumbarton Bridge, using her former professor's contrarian lessons to help the poor.
"I still use that way of thinking to look at problems with poverty," she said. "I guess that's why I've been successful in getting food here."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.
Name: Melissa Ponchard
Hometown: Palo Alto
Claim to fame: Executive director of Tri-City Volunteers Food Bank and Thrift Store (www.tri-cityvolunteers.org), a Fremont charity that gives food to about 16,000 Tri-City residents each year.
Quote: "There's so much goodwill in our society, but we don't always have the system in place for people to put their good intentions. That's what I like about my job. I want people to see that the time and money they give to Tri-City Volunteers is really put to good use."
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