by Jacob Pierce on Dec 12, 2012
Danny Keith hopes Grind Out Hunger can collect enough food and money to support half a million meals for needy families in Santa Cruz County this year.
With the static-like hum of 41st Avenue’s traffic rolling by outside, Danny Keith is having a proud moment in his newly reopened Santa Cruz Surf and Skate Shop. He’s watching his son Zane Keith and 7-year-old Logan Frank carve around the ramps of the store’s indoor skate park.
“I skate, but nowhere near what these kids are capable of,” Keith says, pointing to the wooden park in the corner of the store.
Keith, who has a golden koi tattoo on one arm and the word “loyalty” on the other, built Santa Cruz County’s first indoor skate park this year to fundraise for Grind Out Hunger, a group he started in 2003 that fights hunger in the county.
To Keith this is more than a skate shop. It’s part of a larger vision.
According to figures from Second Harvest Food Bank, one out of every four kids in Santa Cruz County is food insecure, and over 55,000 people need emergency food support. Keith lays it down straight. “If another country were doing this to their kids, we’d be at war,” he says. “I don’t understand why we let kids go hungry. It’s ridiculous.”
Keith’s ambitions all start with getting food to hungry families. Charging $3 for an indoor free skate, the ginger-haired skating and surfing entrepreneur is putting proceeds toward a goal of donating and raising money for half a million meals, or 625,000 pounds of foods, this holiday season. The skate store is selling skateboards designed by 12-year-old Colby Phillips, son of designer Jimbo Phillips, with all those proceeds going to Grind Out Hunger, as well.
Beyond that, Keith wants kids to have a safe place to practice where they don’t have to worry about mixing it up with the experienced skaters that hang out at some of the county’s outdoor parks. And Keith wants the new spot, which just reopened after a big renovation, to be a fun area for teenagers to spend afternoons.
“We only have one rule: don’t be a jackass,” he says. “And if you think you might be a jackass, you probably are, and you’re gonna get thrown out. But we won’t even have to throw people out that often.”
On one side of the store’s front door are some couches and televisions, where he also plans to put in some game consoles. On the other side, the shop has microphone stands, amplifiers and a PA system, for the full DIY-scene experience. He envisions it as a space for the same kids who skate to play when they start bands.
“This’ll be the stage, CBGB-style, right here on the floor,” Keith says.
The store’s vibe is already making an impression.
“He’s crazy about it,” Kevin Frank says as his son Logan skates the park a few feet away. “We came in for the first time last week, and he wants to go every week. Everyone welcomes him. It’s really a great atmosphere.”
The walls are decorated with vibrant graffiti-style art that almost seems to pop out from the store’s edges—some of it designed by artist Drew Milburn. And Santa Cruz Surf and Skate, which is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 6pm, also has a separate back room with skate ramps for birthdays and private parties.
Keith wanted to build a space where young skaters could start to master their craft, and pick up an added message about social justice.
“They’re always going to remember,” Keith says. “It’s like going to church. It’s like Santa Claus. I’m not brainwashing them. I’m exposing them.”
And if 7-year-old Logan Frank is any indicator, the brand recognition is working.
“He doesn’t think of it as an indoor skate park,” father Kevin says. “He knows it by its name, Grind Out Hunger. For someone who’s 7 years old, that’s pretty awesome.”
“That’s the thing,” Keith says from the other side of the store. “I hope some of those kids will remain hunger fighters. He might not even realize what it means [now], but then as he gets older, he starts realizing.”
Keith first became interested in helping the hungry when someone from Second Harvest Food Bank came by his store with an empty barrel for food donations. At the time, Keith says, one in four children were food insecure.
“That resonated with me and I started paying attention. And I started going to schools, talking to kids about kids being hungry, once it started getting worse.”
Grind Out Hunger provided food and funding for 90,000 meals in 2009. Last year, GOH’s goal was 250,000 meals, a number they ended up beating by 50,000. Keith is trying to almost double that this year with the new goal of 500,000 meals, which ultimately then go to its big sister organization—Second Harvest Food Bank. Second Harvest Food Bank has a goal this year of 3.5 million meals for needy families.
Keith has been to over 25 schools this holiday season to tell kids about the dangers of food insecurity. He gets emotional and encourages kids to donate their lunch money, allowance, canned food or whatever they can. By Second Harvest’s math, one dollar allows the group to provide four meals because they buy food in such large bulk.
Kristine Ronzano, who serves on the Grind Out Hunger board, says when Keith shows up, people listen.
“I’m very impressed with his rapport with these kids and his commitment to them and making [donations] cool because kids care about what’s cool,” Ronzano says. “He lets kids know that their friends could be going hungry. It’s important for the community, and it needs to start with the kids.”
The economic downturn has hit Second Harvest Food Bank in some tough ways. Due to increased demand and deceased donations, Second Harvest reduced its packages from 10 monthly meals to eight. But kids have been stepping their efforts up, donation more each year than the one before it.
“These kids are having such a tremendous impact, given all the volunteers we have,” says Second Harvest CEO Willy Elliott-McCrea. “It’s wonderful to see the light bulb go on for them.”
When it comes to getting kids involved, Keith hasn’t been grinding it out alone. He’s leveraged support from music acts like Chris Rene, Cruzmatik and Tess Dunn. Cianciarulo Construction donated all the wood for the new skate park. The Santa Cruz Warriors recently teamed up with the Grind Out Hunger cause by giving the nonprofit its own 60-seat “Hunger Warrior” section in the new arena that opens this month. The proceeds go to Grind Out Hunger, and the new D-League team aims to support 80,000 meals annually.
“Everyone that I’ve ever done business with has been brought into this challenge, into this battle,” he says. “I want to end childhood hunger—I want to put a dent in it at least.”
He realizes many people can’t even wrap their mind around that concept. But he is truly driven, to the point that many people around him wonder when he even sleeps.
“It’s such a huge challenge. It’s overwhelming with so many people,” he admits. “I live for the overwhelming challenges.”
Keith says the key to his organization’s success is that kids liked to be asked for help, not told. They lack the world-weary edge of adults, who sometimes blame poverty on the poor—forgetting, he says, that no young children ask to be born into poor households.
“And kids don’t see it that way yet,” Keith says. “They have it built in where you say, ‘hey, do you kids want to help?’ And they go ‘yeah!’”
If Keith has one goal, it’s to keep our youngest generation thinking that way forever. “We could just stay altruistic and keep caring about others the way kids do and not get jaded,” Keith says. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”