A Simple Gesture

Sharing Food In Our Community. Serving Paradise and Magalia, California

Look What They Are Saying Now

Put it in the cool, green bag

By Christine G.K. LaPado
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This article was published on 06.02.11.

PHOTO BY CHRISTINE G.K. LAPADO
Jonathan and Karen Trivers

Jonathan and Karen Trivers share a light moment while discussing the next move of their nonprofit charity, A Simple Gesture, which provides food to a growing number of people in Paradise and Magalia.

"If we look at the demographics of poverty, the younger the family, the higher the unemployment and, therefore, the higher the rate of poverty," said Jonathan Trivers recently. "The new poor are children and grandchildren."

Trivers, a 67-year-old grandfather of 17, added that 20.7 percent of Butte County households are at or below the poverty level, equaling one in five.

"That’s brutal," he said.

Poverty translates into hunger, and that is why, five months ago, Trivers and his wife, Karen, started a food-collection program—the first of its kind in California—to help keep up with the needs of the newly hungry in Paradise and Magalia. Community members sign up to be given a “cool green bag,” as the couple call the reusable lime-green grocery bag into which participants place one nonperishable item each time they go shopping. Once every two months, the couple and their growing brigade (67 and counting) of volunteers pick up the bags and take them to five food pantries in Paradise and one in Magalia—the Magalia Food Bank—“which is just starting because they will get food from our program,” Trivers said.

A Simple Gesture, as the Trivers’ nonprofit charity is called, collected 6,400 pounds of food in the month of February, 12,000 pounds in May and anticipates a whopping 16,000 pounds of donated food in June. More than 1,000 households on the Ridge now have a cool green bag.

As food pantries across the United States continue to struggle to provide enough food for the large number of people grappling with a job-scarce economy, community-based food-procurement efforts such as A Simple Gesture are a much-needed breath of fresh air. A similar project in Ashland, Ore., the Ashland Food Project on which A Simple Gesture is modeled, was recently honored by the Oregon State Legislature for its efforts to help alleviate hunger in southern Oregon as “living proof of what we can accomplish when we take an active role in our communities.”

Jonathan and Karen Trivers’ altruism and community-mindedness runs deep. In January 2001, they moved from Sarasota, Fla., to Nova Scotia, to found an annual summer camp for disadvantaged and severely disabled children. The nonprofit-charity camp’s name? A Simple Gesture.

“We felt we had a calling,” Jonathan offered. “In the middle of winter, we drove north from Florida, and when we got to Maine, there were 20,000 Canadians going south—and one white Ford Explorer going north.”

That Explorer, of course, was theirs.

“We had five grown children, and I give speeches for a living, so it doesn’t really matter where I live,” said Jonathan—an engaging, enthusiastic man who gives talks to business groups in the flooring industry—of the decision to pick up and move nearly 2,000 miles to a place they had seen only once on a vacation in order to help where they knew they were needed.

Seven years later, the couple moved to Paradise to be closer to family. And that is where A Simple Gesture was transformed into the food-security program it is today.

When the Triverses restarted A Simple Gesture in Paradise four years ago, its mission was to assist local churches in expanding the number of free lunches served per week.

When the couple arrived, two churches were each serving two lunches per week. Now, a lunch is available every day of the week but Sunday at three different Ridge churches, thanks to A Simple Gesture’s efforts. A no-charge Thursday Dinner Club at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church was added as well, with five churches involved in serving the meals.

"We offered our money, added to the churches’ [volunteers]," said Jonathan, of how the expansion came about.

A Simple Gesture’s cool-green-bag program was the next step.

“The cost of food is increasing, the demand for services is increasing, and government help is going down,” Jonathan said. “This [program] is exactly what our town—or any town—needs so that it can take care of its own.

“The three-legged stool of sustainability has three components—financial or economic, environmental, and the last leg that no one pays attention to is social sustainability. When people hear ‘sustainability’ or ‘green,’ they think in terms of the new light bulb or better insulation or ‘paper or plastic?’ But a broader, more compelling definition of sustainability is, ‘How does the community sustain itself by taking care of itself?’ That’s the question.”

The food that people place in the green bag, Karen pointed out, is not the typical institutional food often seen in food pantries, such as gigantic cans of kidney beans or hominy or sliced peaches in syrup.

“People are putting cake mixes, pancake mix, ketchup and salad dressing in the cool green bag—things we actually eat,” she said. “You’re buying this food for your neighbor—young families with kids who have lost their house and their SUV, and never thought they’d be in this situation. And those kids like cupcakes.”

In addition to the food it collects in the cool green bags, A Simple Gesture also contracts with Paradise’s Sawmill Creek Farms to devote an acre of its land exclusively to growing fresh produce for local food pantries.

“Every week we are receiving fresh produce—like fresh kale—from Sawmill Creek Farms,” said Jonathan. “We’re not talking about driving it up from Chile—we’re talking three miles away, picked 24 hours ago.”

The couple have been approached by people from out of the area—including Georgia, Ohio, Washington, and other cities in California—looking for advice on how to start a similar program in their communities.

A group of people from the nearby town of Biggs recently started up their own cool-green-bag program after consulting with the Triverses, to help supply the town’s struggling food bank at the United Methodist Church.

“What Jon and Karen are doing is an extraordinary effort in feeding the needy in our community—Paradise and Magalia,” said Carol Danz, director of the Magalia Food Bank, which will open its doors June 13. “If everyone would do what Jon and Karen do during their retirement years for their community, then the world would be a blissful place.”