ernie soto jan graff veterans second harvest food bank
Ernie Soto (left) and Jan Graff are among the veterans of Santa Cruz American Legion Post 64 who volunteer every week to serve meals at the Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Cruz. Contributed photo

People come together every Wednesday at the Veterans Memorial Building (VMB) in Santa Cruz to serve the community. 

Many military veterans can’t afford the food they need. The Santa Cruz American Legion Post 64, part of a nationwide veterans’ service organization, and nonprofit Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB) work to ease this burden for local vets.

Post 64 hosts a free “pantry distribution” and hot lunch program—open to all military vets, who are welcome to bring spouses or other family members—from 11am-1pm Wednesdays at VMB. SHFB and other community partners including real estate business Sereno Group provide support. 

Vets receive free groceries including fresh produce, bread/bakery items, and pantry goods such as flour. With the hot lunch, people can eat onsite or take food to go. A recent lunch menu: barbecue pork sandwich (or vegetarian organic bean and cheese burrito), roasted potatoes, coleslaw, and dessert.

Jan Graff and D.V. “Gunny” Murawsky, both Vietnam War veterans, run the programs and are Post leaders. Current Post commander Graff served in the US Navy. Murawsky, who served as a Marine, is the Post Finance Officer; past positions include Commander, Adjutant and Judge Advocate.

For programs to flourish, it takes many volunteers including vets Ernie Soto (a former U.S. Army combat medic, he has helped run the Wednesday pantry for years) and Craig Moeller (a U.S. Army vet who greets everyone in the lunch line by name and writes the menu by hand on a sign each week).

Graff orders SHFB donations used for the pantry and lunch. 

“If I order 500 pounds of food, SHFB provides free delivery,” Graff said. “They donate fresh produce, canned goods like peaches, refried beans, cereal, lots of stuff.”

Volunteers go to Costco, which donates items that can’t be sold due to visual imperfections. Oroweat provides bread each week. 

“We set this donation up through Post member Gary Castiglioni, who also helps cook lunches,” Murawsky said. 

All the chefs who help are volunteers. Murawsky regularly drives to San Jose to buy restaurant supplies and food at three wholesale locations.

The number of lunch and pantry participants varies. On one Wednesday in October, 71 came for lunch and 62 visited the pantry including a 98-year-old WWII vet. 

“There are a couple Korean War vets in their late 80s and many Vietnam vets,” Graff said. The rest are from more recent wars and deployments.”

Graff says gets a lot of satisfaction out of helping other veterans. 

“Some only have a hot plate to cook on, others live on the street. We had one vet that lived in Boulder Creek who walked to Santa Cruz every Wednesday for the hot meal and the Pantry. He didn’t like to ride in vehicles. Also, a few of my classmates from Santa Cruz High’s class of 1962 come for the Pantry.” 

The Post operated the Meals program at the County building on Emeline from 2011-2014 and has done this—plus the Pantry—at VMB since 2014. They’ve served more than 28,800 meals between the two locations in 11 years and distributed more than 21,600 Pantry bags since 2014. 

“In addition, we have provided personal health and hygiene items, sundries and clothing,” Murawsky added.

Freezers and refrigerators have come from a variety of sources. 

“Recently, Second Harvest Food Bank secured a grant and purchased a brand-new refrigerator,” Murawsky said. “We also have one refrigerator that Home Depot donated. Years ago, the Santa Cruz Women’s Club was disbanding and generously used their remaining funds to buy a stove for the Post’s kitchen.”

The Post aims to take care of veterans and their families. 

“Our salaries are nil, but the gratitude we receive is the coin of the realm,” Murawsky said. “Our motto is ‘Still serving America.’ We also run school award programs and boys’ and girls’ state programs.”

SHFB Agency Network Manager Mike Kittredge says everyone at SHFB works hard to ensure that 80 partner agencies—including the American Legion Post 64—succeed as they distribute food to Santa Cruz County residents in need. 

“Upon visiting the Post, I was moved by the unconditional support the Post leadership and volunteers showed fellow veterans,” Kittredge said. “It made me think how much my father, a Korean War vet, would have benefited from a community like the one at Post 64.”

On Oct. 17, the Food Bank held a conference for partner agencies, “Sowing the Seeds of Hope: Addressing Systemic Food Insecurity in Our Communities.” Sessions included Rethinking and Sharing Best Practices for Participant Success through Pantry Distribution Practices. 

“One of the many great leaders of American Legion Post 64, Gunny, attended this conference and contributed to its success in preparing our partners to think about and address food insecurity in new and creative ways,” Kittredge said.

SHFB has two vets on staff. Brent Anderson, a Vietnam War veteran who served in the Navy for three years, is Safety Coordinator. He makes sure food handling is done in a safe and sanitary manner. Anderson, who joined SHFB’s staff in 2018 after volunteering for a year, enjoys working with SHFB team members to provide safe, nutritious food to the community. 

“There is a level of dedication to our customers I’ve never experienced,” he said. 

Being a veteran informs his work, he added. 

“I think about how many vets are homeless and in need of food or just companionship,” Anderson said. “I know the work the Food Bank does reaches some of them.” 

Veteran Brandon Coffin has been SHFB’s Facilities and Safety Director since July 2022. He manages the facility support staff and leads the Food Safety and Occupational Safety Programs. 

Coffin’s military service in the Marines had a major influence on his career, serving as a diesel mechanic. When training a unit of reserve combat engineers, he “… really started getting into occupational safety and developed a passion for finding safer work processes.”

On Oct. 10, Coffin directly witnessed the impact of SHFB’s work. 

“There was no better feeling than when I helped at my first drive-through distribution,” he said. “Being able to provide food in a huge way to community members—including vets—reaffirmed my decision to join this team.” 

More than 1,000 individuals and families received free food at the Oct. 10 drive-through at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, the first of several extra food distributions SHFB added at the fairgrounds to meet increased needs. Remaining drive-throughs are Nov. 21, Dec. 5 and 19.

American Foreign Legion Post 64, 846 Front St., Santa Cruz

Interested in donating or volunteering? Contact [email protected], 708.8511, or Jan Graff at [email protected]

Second Harvest Food Bank, 800 Ohlone Parkway, Watsonville

Interested in donating or volunteering? Contact 722.7110 or [email protected]

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