Shortening the Line

A conversation about basic needs, self-sufficiency, and the resurgence of community togetherness.

By Mark Storer


Failure is an option. In this new economy, where growth is slow or stagnant and hard work doesn’t necessarily translate into a livable wage, the inability to get by has become a reality for an increasing number of people.

But we’re not doomed. At least not if you listen to Hugh Ralston, president and CEO of the Ventura County Community Foundation, and Bonnie Weigel, CEO of Food Share of Ventura County.

We sat down with the two community leaders to discuss an ever-evolving grass-roots non-profit effort known as Ventura County Together—a group of about 40 public and non-profit agencies collaborating to help local residents’ meet their basic needs and get back on their feet. VC Together shares information, focusing on specific needs, and works not just to bring awareness to a problem, but to help solve the problem once and for all.

What exactly is VC Together?

Bonnie Weigel:
Really, what we do is supply a safety and support net in the community. By 2009, there were all these new friends who needed help for basic needs: housing, medical, food. The need has increased, not decreased. All of our groups are helping the same people, so we got together and asked, ‘Is there a way we can do this more efficiently?’

Did you foresee VC Together growing as it has?

Hugh Ralston: It’s scary to think that we started this five years ago. We’ve seen this economic contraction morph into a financial panic, and back then we sensed that something was happening in Ventura County around basic needs, but we weren’t sure what it was.

How did you design the collaborative?

HR: It started with the Ventura County Community Foundation, Cause, and the United Way in Ventura County back in 2007 developing the freeze fund. We had a particularly brutal freeze (the governor declared Ventura County a disaster area) and recognized that it was not going to be good, particularly for farm workers. VC Together was a natural outgrowth of that, of coming together to see what we could do to better assist people. By December of 2008, we started asking what was going on in our community and we saw some of the changes that the economy brought here.

And now you’re doing more than simply providing food or short-term fixes?

BW: When we handed someone a bag of food at Food Share, they would almost always ask if we knew someone who was hiring, or if they knew a place where they could stay or get a car repaired or whatever. The light bulb went on for us a few years ago when we realized that our stakeholders didn’t want just a short-term solution. So we redrew our organizational plan to figure out how to get people to move toward self-sufficiency. It was about asking if this new normal, with people living at barely subsistence or poverty level, was acceptable.

Beyond the economy, what have you identified as the main causes of poverty in Ventura County?

BW: This is something we’ve talked about not just in Ventura County, but at the national level as well. A third of our country is living at the poverty level. We asked why that is the case. There are three main reasons. The first one is social capital. When I grew up, everyone looked out for each other in their community. That has diminished in our country. The second one is about how a city is laid out. Transportation and getting people to and from work is a real problem for people living paycheck to paycheck. The third one is that we spend less on our poor children than any other country in the world. It’s no wonder we have this divide. And when we ask these people what they’re looking for, they always talk about wanting to get back to self-sufficiency. How do we take care of them today and give them a bridge to self-sufficiency?

How many people do you serve in Ventura County?

HR: When we started, Food Share was serving around 50,000 people a month. That number is now 74,000. It has stabilized, but if you step back, you know the economy is growing a little bit. But what that means is that one in nine people in Ventura County can’t make it through the month without help. The fact that we are still helping people with basic needs is the depressing part. The good news is that we have come through some strategic planning, and that we’ve got public agencies and nonprofits coming together, which is encouraging. We’re learning about what’s going on in the community and we have a lot more knowledge about all the things we do and how they make an impact. Most people are impacted by multiple issues, not just one.

Give us an example of a VC Together collaboration?

HR: One of the things we’re doing is building a database for things like knowing which churches in Ventura County are doing mission outreach with a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. The challenge is not just in building the database, but how to keep it up to date. Now, we’re all helping each other and getting smarter about what’s going on and the challenges that both the public and private sector are making. The sequester (automatic spending cuts in the federal budget) has really impacted our area, and we’re able to use information from that and give assistance to people who are directly affected by it. There’s no silver bullet for these issues; there’s no one solution, no one pot of money that’s going to solve these problems. I’ve been at the Community Foundation for ten years and we’ve seen a number of changes in that time. What we’re finding is that when we combine together, we have a better sense of what’s happening and how to deal with it.

So there’s no silver bullet, but are there any answers?

It’s really about making connections. If we can hand someone a bag of food and help connect them to housing, and help give them the skills they need—now, just like that, the family can move on. There will always be some who can’t be self-sufficient for whatever reason. But for those that can or want to, we are working collectively to help them get to that point. So when we go out and do a food drive, we’ll have someone from Southern California Gas who can talk to you about lowering your utility bills. That’s a few more bucks in your pocket. And there’s also someone there from Cal Fresh who can help you get fresh groceries every week. We’ll also bring healthcare screeners and other things that will help people ‘shorten the line,’ as we say. That’s getting them back to self-sufficiency.

You’re seeing positive steps then toward getting people back on their feet.

BW: For this generation, poverty is our civil rights issue. We see people who want to move out of that and back to self-sufficiency. We’re studying everything, and the part that gets me really excited is that we’re seeing the big national groups like United Way, Feeding America, St. Vincent de Paul saying, ‘This is not about us.’ If we can work together and help each other, we can get more help to more people more efficiently and shorten the line between poverty and self-sufficiency, and we’re asking how we can do that more effectively in Ventura County.

For more information about Ventura County Together, visit or call 805-988-0196.

Special thanks to Richard Atmore, president of RA Cattle Co., for providing access to the “Two Trees” property.

Hunger in Ventura County? Considering our temperate climate and perfect growing soil, the irony is as clear as a sparkling winter day.

Homeless senior assisted by Ventura County Area Agency on Aging.

Westminster Free Clinic, a volunteer-driven health care provider in East County.

Local Habitat for Humanity construction project.


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