Regional food banks scramble to bolster supplies, volunteers

As the state ramps up efforts to keep food banks operational during the COVID-19 emergency, Bay Area food programs have had to adjust procedures as they struggle to find volunteers and resources. (Photo courtesy of Second Harvest of Silicon Valley/Facebook)

Facing a “tsunami of need” as one food bank director said, Gov. Gavin Newsom has called up the National Guard to assist deliveries at the state’s food banks.

Grappling with the coronavirus pandemic crisis, the governor said his executive order Friday will provide short-term food security to isolated and vulnerable Californians and the short deployment will help to stabilize the immediate need of food banks.

The governor’s office noted that many food banks have been affected by a significant decline in volunteerism, impacting logistical and local infrastructure for food distribution. The California National Guard will initially deploy personnel and logistical equipment to a food bank distribution warehouse in Sacramento County and will conduct immediate site assessments statewide for those counties that have requested short-term support and stabilization.

This short-term assistance from the California National Guard allows time to mobilize AmeriCorps, California Conservation Corps and Local Conservation Corps members, and other volunteers where counties have identified serious gaps, the governor’s office said.

Leslie Bacho, the head of the Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, said in late March that her food operation has had to “completely retool” its operation protocols to ensure they can safely deliver food. “It’s a tsunami of need,” Bacho said, with a flood of local residents in need of nutrition at the same time they are being kept at home under the state’s shelter-in-place orders. Second Harvest has initiated a new program of pop-up food distribution sites.

Situation changing by the hour

Noting the importance of safety, Gunilla Bergensten of the SF-Marin Food Bank emphasized the precautions the group is taking to keep their customers and staff virus-free. Following federal health (CDC) guidelines, the charity is seeking an increase in bag donations to enable pre-packaging of supplies to cut down on lines and food handling; distributing gloves to all staff; increasing disinfection and cleaning of all equipment; reducing volunteer shifts; maintaining social distancing and starting new pop-up sites.

Delivery to shut-in elderly residents “is critical” Bergensten said Saturday. She said the pandemic’s needs “are changing almost hourly.”

The state’s food deployment strategy also launches the Neighbor-to-Neighbor campaign, which calls on neighbors to be first line of support for California’s most vulnerable residents who have been advised to stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Neighbor-to-Neighbor campaign is focused on older adults and promotes ways to safely check on your neighbors, family and friends, and will be run by California Volunteers, the state office tasked with engaging Californians in service, volunteering and civic action. The state is partnering with the social networking service Nextdoor to provide valuable information to California communities about the state’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

Bacho emphasized the need for the community to “step up” to help with food and fundraising. The combination of the flood of food needs and the limitations of staffing has squeezed all charity operations. She noted that Amazon had promised a fresh truck of food donations and Raley’s has stepped forward.

Bacho said that the 2008 recession crisis was “a slow build” but the pandemic has been “like falling off a dramatic cliff.”

Food banks need volunteers, cash

Michael Altfest of the Alameda Food Bank also said that new distribution programs are among his biggest challenges. His group is also organizing pop-up food distribution and is looking forward to the help coming from the National Guard. “Getting extra human resources,” is vital Altfest said Saturday. He also emphasized the need for funding donations. “What people don’t realize is that we purchase most of our food,” Altfest said. He did say that the food bank has seen a surge in volunteers eager to help out.

“We have 112 people who are very committed to the health of our community,” he added.

But Altfest did admit, “We are all worried about the coming surge” of infected patients.

The Contra Costa-Solano Food Bank has also begun planning new distribution locations. The food bank stated online, “There will be supplemental distributions starting (this) week utilizing our first drive-thru food assistance method. We are so thankful for the volunteers who stepped up to put together 1,000 of our new emergency food boxes on Thursday.” The Contra Costa food group has a warehouse located in North Concord.

The pandemic has also impacted a Contra Costa free food charity, Loaves and Fishes. The charity’s communal buffet-style dining halls located in Martinez, Oakley, Antioch and Pittsburg have been forced to close and switch to “dinner-to-go” and grocery bag pickups.

Joleen Lafayette, the CEO of the local branch, said they are currently producing 1,600 meals a day. The group’s clientele is mostly homeless, but she noted that more housed residents are coming in for help.

Like other food banks, Loaves and Fishes is facing a shortage of go-to containers, bags, canned food and masks. She hailed the efforts of her “amazing” staff under the tough pressure of the crisis. She also expressed thanks to the Lesher Foundation for a recent significant donation.

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