Anthology cofounder’s food pantry allows high school students to help the hungry

By Lee Schoenbart

Contributor

Food, it would seem, is a recurring theme as the vocation and avocation of Carmel Valley’s Marsha Berkson.

Before she became cofounder of trendy Anthology, which pairs fine cuisine with just the right genre of live musical performances, Berkson formed Hand Up Youth Food Pantry as a way to involve high school students across San Diego in the plight of the perpetually hungry.

In 2006, Berkson presented Jewish Family Services with a plan where high school students would staff and manage a food bank distributing groceries in a manner that would respect the recipients’ dignity while teaching these young people invaluable life lessons — all involved would benefit.

“I have always been passionate about instilling community service and values in our teenagers,” Berkson said. “When I was a volunteer mom, I would head-up our social action programs at the San Diego Jewish Academy and every month I would take the kids and they would do something. We’d go pick oranges for the homeless, play with underprivileged preschool kids, pack Thanksgiving baskets and distribute them.”

Berkson’s plan for Hand-Up offered a business and social roadmap to beginning adulthood for San Diego’s high school students who got involved. She said: “They would form committees at their schools and learn how to put together food drives, learn how to motivate each other in committee meetings, learn how to speak in front of people, learn how to call the principal of a school and organize a food drive or talk to a corporation and organize a food drive.”

In Carmel Valley, Hand Up has committees at San Diego Jewish Academy, Torrey Pines High School, Canyon Crest Academy and Cathedral Catholic. Throughout San Diego, it has 39 student executive committee members with 560 annual volunteers.

Berkson has two sons in Carmel Valley schools who walk the talk. Fourteen-year-old Brandon attends Canyon Crest and is on the Hand Up executive committee. Although Jake is only 11 and a fifth grader at the San Diego Jewish Academy, he still goes to distributions to help out when Berkson attends.

About the experience for the students, Berkson said, “It’s really two-fold. First of all, it is doing something that is for the good of the community – teaching kids how to give back, understanding hunger and seeing the face of hunger. The other thing it does is gives them some really great leadership skills.

“Of course,” Berkson said, “making sure they see what the face of hunger looks like is really important because you can collect the food, run a committee meeting, but in order to hand out food and see that ‘Wow, I’m really making a difference’ and ‘I’ve made people feel good today’ is an important component.”

Nowhere is that more evident than assisting the families on base at Camp Pendleton. Hand Up’s monthly event on the base operates more like a free version of Food 4 Less where military families go through a shopping line to choose what they really need as opposed to standing in a food line for a generic bag of whatever.

“We don’t want people to feel like they’re getting a hand out; we want them to feel like they’re getting a hand up,” she said. “It’s hard enough that they probably have a loved one overseas, so when they come in and get food from us, we want to put it together almost like a super market. They’re not handed a bag, they’re going through a line that has all different items they can choose from. We’re good to their dignity.”

The pantry delivers food to 12 locations throughout the county: once a week at St. Paul’s Cathedral downtown, once a month at Camp Pendleton and Murphy Canyon Military Housing, and as needed to its clients at Chabad Downtown, Alef Center, Julian Pathways, College Avenue Older Adult Center, Foodmobile, Foothills High School, Turk Family Center, JFS North County Coastal office and JFS North County Inland office.

For volunteer opportunities at Hand Up, call (858) 637-3088 or e-mail

jfsonline@jfssd.org

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To learn more about the youth food panty, visit the

Jewish Family Services Web site

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