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Bagging food at the Alameda County Community Food Bank
Bagging food at the Alameda County Community Food Bank
Alameda County Community Food Bank

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Coronavirus Has Made Tackling Food Insecurity in the Bay Area Far More Difficult

Food banks, schools, and restaurateurs find themselves fighting hunger on the frontlines

At 4 a.m. on Friday, March 20, David Goodman got up to go to work. The CEO of the Redwood Empire Food Bank arrived at his organization’s Santa Rosa headquarters by 5:30, and by lunch (which he ate standing up), Goodman had drafted a report to his board of directors, held a meeting with his management team, and liaised with officials from Sonoma County, an area that the food bank serves in addition to Humboldt, Del Norte, Mendocino, and Lake counties. As a 25-year food bank veteran, Goodman has endured manifold crises: the 2008 financial downturn, the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire, the 2019 PG&E power shutoffs, and last year’s Russian River flooding. But the novel coronavirus, he says, is like nothing he’s ever seen.

“During other disasters, it’s a ripple effect, where the fire hits and people evacuate for a week, and then maybe a month down the road, some people lost their jobs, some people lost their food, they’ve been struggling,” Goodman says. “But what’s different about COVID-19, it’s not a ripple effect — it’s a tsunami.” And just like one of those underwater earthquakes, the impact on Bay Area communities will be swift and devastating.

With six Northern California counties having announced “shelter-in-place” orders last Monday, the area’s residents are already suffering from widespread business closures, reduced work schedules, and layoffs. Now, in the wake of a similar statewide mandate that Gov. Gavin Newsom put into effect on Friday, March 20, Goodman and other food-security experts say that financial losses will cause an enormous spike in the already growing demand for food assistance, at a time when food pantries, soup kitchens, and other distribution sites are operating with fewer volunteers or closing entirely. What’s more, many individuals will be facing hunger for the first time, leaving food banks, public schools, and Good Samaritans scrambling to meet new needs with fewer resources and more red tape.

“The situation feels like it’s changing minute by minute. That’s not sensational,” says Michael Altfest, director of community engagement at Alameda County Community Food Bank, which typically serves 130,000 residents across the East Bay. “We did 40 referrals on our emergency food helpline on Monday. We did 200 Wednesday. So it quintupled in the course of two days.” Altfest, who has worked with ACCFB for nine years, has had to create his first-ever “situation room” due to the constant flow of information and increased need. “It [is] the highest demand time that we’ve ever seen,” he says.

Altfest reports that 50 percent of last Wednesday’s helpline requests came from new callers, meaning individuals who have never before sought food assistance from ACCFB. In Silicon Valley, Second Harvest Food Bank chief executive Leslie Bacho says there has been a 100 percent increase in the number of people calling the organization’s food connection hotline over the past two weeks; the majority have been first-time callers. “It’s mostly people who are hourly workers, and certainly workers in the service industry,” Baccho explains.

These are individuals who don’t necessarily conform to hunger-relief tropes. “They don’t self-describe as poor,” Goodman points out. “They don’t think of themselves as poor. They’re not poor. They may earn $50,000 a year, but they live right up to their means because it’s very expensive to live here.”

Food referral services, like the hotlines operated by ACCFB and Second Harvest, are among the myriad programs used by Bay Area food banks — massive Costco-like warehouses that store food — to help individuals locate on-the-ground resources, like groceries or a hot meal. These goods are then distributed by partner agencies, such as food pantries and soup kitchens. But now, pantries across the Bay Area are shutting down, creating supply issues at a time of surging demand. Within the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank network of 275-plus weekly pantries, 100 had closed by last Friday, according to a food bank spokesperson; that’s up from the 30 closures reported by the San Francisco Chronicle less than two weeks ago. Many pantries, which are often staffed by volunteers over the age of 65, who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, simply haven’t had the workers to remain open due to public health precautions, Altfest explains.

To further complicate matters, food banks themselves faced declining volunteer numbers as fears of the new coronavirus spread. Katy McKnight, director of community engagement at SF-Marin Food Bank, says that roughly half of the organization’s March volunteers have canceled (although she adds that the gaps have since been filled thanks to media outreach). Bacho says that Second Harvest lost at least 50 percent of its volunteers, due primarily to large corporate groups canceling their staff outings. To make up the shortfall, Bacho has had to bring in paid temporary workers. But even so, social distancing restrictions mean that she’s had to do more with less. “We also can’t have as many people in the room as we could before, because we’re trying to do the best we can to help ensure people’s safety,” Bacho explains.

A pop-up food pantry at Mission High School in San Francisco
A pop-up food pantry at San Francisco’s Mission High School
SF-Marin Food Bank

To deal with these obstacles, Bay Area food banks have had to pioneer new distribution models in a matter of days. Last week, SF-Marin Food Bank began rolling out “pop-up pantries” that are open to the public, co-located with SFUSD sites that are distributing free meals to any person under the age of 18, and stocked with fruits, proteins, and starches. McKnight says that the organization has already popped up with five pantries in San Francisco and two in Marin; they’re hoping to double both numbers this week.

Meanwhile, in Alameda County, ACCFB is shifting toward emergency food bags and away from in-pantry shopping. Last week, the organization delivered 3,000 bags to 12 school sites in cooperation with Oakland Unified School District. “It is a really effective way for us to get a lot of staple nutrition in one place at a time. And get a bunch out,” Altfest explains. “It also works very well in a situation in which people can’t congregate.” For similar reasons, Bacho says that Second Harvest is moving to drive-thru distributions and meal delivery for homebound seniors.

The San Francisco nonprofit St. Anthony’s has also done away with its traditional, sit-down dining service in favor of to-go meals, says deputy executive director Tere Brown. And where food pantry patrons used to do their own shopping, now St. Anthony’s staff will select goods for them, as well as distribute emergency food boxes on the street. “The vulnerable population doesn’t get what it needs most days,” says Brown. “But then, on top of a crisis like this, we have to stay steady and ensure that we provide essential services necessary for them to stay healthy.”

Hunger-relief leaders now say that funding and supplies are their biggest challenges. St. Anthony’s to-go model requires the nonprofit to spend an additional $1,800 on packaging each day, says Brown — resources that will have to somehow be raised. And the whole-scale shift to takeaway has created unanticipated scarcities. “Honestly, one of the biggest challenges we’re facing right now is bags,” says McKnight of SF-Marin Food Bank. It’s a need that Altfest, in Alameda County, echoes, and one that again distinguishes the COVID-19 crisis from other disasters. “If there was an earthquake that would affect the Bay Area, food banks in Southern California can chip in,” Altfest says. “But we’re all dealing with the same thing right now.”

The new food distribution setup at St. Anthony’s featured pre-packed bags
The new food distribution setup at St. Anthony’s featured pre-packed bags
St. Anthony’s

The federal government’s recent Families First Coronavirus Response Act includes hunger-relief provisions, like those that expand eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But Goodman, at the Redwood Empire Food Bank, feels that more is needed, and that city and county governments should take the lead in supporting food banks: “We serve 82,000 people, and we provide $43 million worth of food to them,” he says. “But if another 82,000 people show up, there’s some choices here. Either everybody’s gonna get half, because we just doubled the amount of people we’re serving, or we need to generate new food resources and new funds to be able to meet the growing demand.”

“Did I ever see this coming? No way,” says Jennifer LeBarre, who, as the San Francisco Unified School District’s executive director of nutrition services, is spearheading the district’s efforts to get meals to kids despite the school closures that began Monday, March 16. “We have to be very nimble. My new verb is pivot.”

Before COVID-19, no- and low-cost school lunch programs played a key role in fighting child hunger and malnutrition; SFUSD, for instance, typically serves over 37,000 meals each day at 136 schools across San Francisco. So in the face of coronavirus-induced school closures, LeBarre and her counterparts at the Berkeley Unified and Oakland Unified school districts worked around the clock to transition meal services from the cafeteria to the street, providing any child under the age of 18 with free to-go meals, no proof of enrollment required. By last Friday, SFUSD had operationalized all 20 of its planned distribution sites at locations around the city, which LeBarre describes as the district’s “max capacity” for now.

“I think everybody is really, frankly, tired, but also wanting to do what’s best for our students,” LeBarre says of the school district’s breakneck efforts to not only increase the number of distribution sites from an initial eight last Tuesday, but to make three meals for each child every day, and to have them ready for families to pick up between 9 and 10 a.m. daily. What’s more, the number of children picking up meals has steadily increased over the last week, suggesting that demand will continue to rise.

Last Tuesday, LeBarre says, the district served 850 children; on Wednesday, that number increased to 1,300, and on Friday, it jumped to 2,850. All told, the district provided 21,000 meals in a single week. “Our employees are first responders at this point, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration,” says LeBarre of a team comprising 60 on-the-ground staff distributing meals, along with volunteers, additional administrators working remotely, and the staff at Revolution Foods, which provides SFUSD with 85 percent of its food daily.

Meal pickup at one of SFUSD’s distribution sites
Meal pickup at one of SFUSD’s distribution sites
San Francisco Unified School District
The contents of SFUSD’s bagged meals for children in San Francisco
The contents of SFUSD’s bagged meals for children in San Francisco
San Francisco Unified School District

Berkeley Unified School District has operated a similar grab-and-go program across its six distribution sites, serving breakfast and lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m each day last week. “It goes up every day,” says Bonnie Christensen of the rising demand. Christensen has worked with BUSD for 13 years, and now runs the district’s nutrition services program. She predicts more families will take advantage of free meals as time passes. “The longer people are out of work, the fewer resources they will have,” she says.

This week, Christensen says that BUSD will move to a three-day distribution schedule akin to the two-day schedule currently operated by OUSD. Bags distributed on Monday and Wednesday will each have two days worth of meals, and Friday will include meals for the following week, which is technically BUSD’s spring break. “I’m assuming we’re not coming back to school on April 6,” Christensen admits, echoing Newsom’s prediction that school closures could continue through summer. BUSD is still deliberating over what will happen next if the closures extend past April 6, she says: “The fluidity of this situation makes it really challenging.” To stay updated, she suggests checking district websites and social media.

There’s also an ongoing struggle to keep staff healthy and calm. “I have employees that have kids, and their kids are home,” says Christensen. “My concerns are really going to be for our employees, and balancing employee needs and safety with the demands of the public.” SFUSD’s LeBarre agrees, noting that her team is maintaining a safe distance and serving meals on the street, so there’s more room between employees and families. Fortunately, both LeBarre and Christensen report that non-symptomatic employees are still coming to work in good spirits.

“When you’re talking about people who are in the world of school lunch, typically they’re not in it for the paycheck,” LeBarre says. “These are the lowest-paid employees in the school district, and they’re there because they care about the children. And that’s the truth, even in a moment of crisis.”

Considering that Bay Area restaurants are suffering something of an armageddon, chefs and hospitality professionals are some of the last individuals you might expect to have the time or emotional bandwidth to support hunger relief. Not so. “We’re slammed, we’re totally slammed,” says Mary Risley, the founder of Food Runners, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that delivers donated food, often from restaurants, to those in need through a network of 300 agency partners. They’re so busy, in fact, that Risley slightly delayed her interview with Eater to arrange for a volunteer pick-up from Nob Hill Cafe, which temporarily shut down last Thursday. “I’ve been running Food Runners for 33 years, and I’ve always said that cooks and chefs really like to share,” she says.

While Food Runners typically completes 700 delivery runs each week, Risley says that by last Tuesday the organization had already made 200 more runs than it normally does by that point in the week. The sudden uptick in donations stems from a raft of restaurant closures, event cancellations, and work-from-home policies issued by tech companies that subsequently cleaned out their corporate cafeterias and snack spaces. Then there are chefs, like Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions and the Slanted Door’s Charles Phan, who Risley says contacted her directly to ask which shelters might benefit; they dropped off free meals at organizations including Health Right 360 and Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center.

And chefs and restaurateurs are stepping up in other ways, from feeding first responders to offering free, to-go meals to the families, workers, and individuals most affected by COVID-19 — as Matt Horn is doing on Wednesday, March 25, with a big curbside barbecue giveaway outside his forthcoming Oakland restaurant, Horn BBQ.

The cooks at Azalina’s have been preparing large batches of food to donate from its Bayview commissary kitchen
The cooks at Azalina’s have been cooking large batches of food to donate from its Bayview commissary kitchen.

“The day my father died, he died as a poor person,” says restaurateur Azalina Eusope, who grew up on Penang, an island in northwest Malaysia. Eusope’s family didn’t have much when she was a child, but her father was generous nonetheless. “The whole island came down just to say goodbye to these street vendors who had nothing,” she recalls. “But that’s the legacy he left, because he was part of his community for so long.”

Now, the chef-owner of Azalina’s and Mahila continues in her father’s footsteps by offering free meals not only to her 12-person staff (who are still being paid even if they aren’t coming in to the takeout-only operation), but also to four student groups, 25 local families, and individuals at shelters across the Bay Area. Last Wednesday and Thursday, Eusope and her team made enough to feed over 1,000 individuals, and delivered prepackaged meals to 10 assistance-focused organizations, including GLIDE, Dolores Street Community Services, and the Riley Center, which assists survivors of domestic violence.

Eusope plans to feed her staff and the local community for at least the next three weeks, as widespread closures continue. But in the interim, there are legitimate concerns that these kinds of efforts aren’t a long-term solution to feeding the newly food insecure — that food donations will taper off once restaurants and tech companies have finished offloading the excess supplies they had on hand before the initial wave of shutdowns. “I’m concerned that the amount of food will dry up in the future,” says Risley at Food Runners. Which means that now more than ever, governments, for-profit companies, and individuals with the financial means will need to step in to assist hunger-relief organizations.

Meals being packed for donation at Azalina’s
Meals being packed for donation at Azalina’s

For now, though, restaurateurs like Eusope are playing an outsized role in the efforts to feed those in need. It’s something that Eusope was inspired to do after the county’s shelter-in-place mandate, when several employees asked her how to apply for food stamps. “It caught me by shock,” she says. “How can this be? Why does my employee who works in the food industry have to apply for food stamps?” She decided that providing meals would be her way to make a lasting impact. And though Eusope’s business has declined, she remains steadfast in her efforts to give back. “Food is not a privilege,” she says. “Food is a right.”

Kathryn Bowen is an Oakland-based freelance writer.