A busy day inside the Redwood Empire Food Bank as holiday season arrives

‘We are essentially the 911 for hunger,’ said Redwood Empire Food Bank CEO David Goodman, as the organization now faces one of its busiest times of the year for volunteer work.|

At the Redwood Empire Food Bank on Wednesday, by 8 a.m. the first two delivery trucks have already been packed full of produce, breads and other staples, all of it headed to a trio of spots across Sonoma County where those in need can drop by to pick it up on a daily basis.

The food bank is a central hub for food donations across the county and the wider North Coast. And it has been in overdrive since last month’s fires, taking in double its normal amount of donations - 2 million pounds in October - and getting those supplies out to displaced families and others lacking for food.

“We are essentially the 911 for hunger,” said CEO David Goodman. “Nobody (else) is coming. The cavalry isn’t coming.”

The day before Thanksgiving, like most days, work started at 4 a.m. when the first employees arrived in the dark to ready orders to be shipped to the food bank’s partner agencies. In all, almost 48 tons of food would be delivered to 32 sites across the North Coast.

“They’re work horses,” Erika Carstensen, REFB logistics manager, said of her team of employees at the sprawling Brickway Boulevard headquarters. “They get in, and they have probably close to an average of 25 orders they need to load. It matters in what order they’re loaded. It matters what truck leaves first. Everything matters.”

When not readying deliveries, the team is unloading truckloads of donations. On that front, things have calmed down quite a bit since the outpouring sent in during the wildfires, Carstensen said. The flood of donations required the food bank to quickly acquire more space. In the end, it settled into a donated 40,000-square-foot warehouse in American Canyon.

Now, the number of trucks that arrive throughout the day has returned mostly to normal, with only a few unscheduled deliveries, Carstensen said. And though the extra level of support has waned, the need in the community has not.

“These national food manufactures were contacting us and sending out loads, and you need to strike while it’s hot,” Goodman said. “You need to squirrel away the food for the months to come because (the help) will turn off as fast as it turned on. It’s just the people, they’re in emergency response mode and the empathy runs high. And the next week, there’s a new disaster and the empathy weather vane goes to the next disaster.”

By 8:40 a.m. on Wednesday the first volunteers began to arrive. Ella Watson, a 14-year-old freshman at Cardinal Newman High School, signed up for a 3-hour shift with the food bank.

Her family was evacuated from their Bennett Valley home for two weeks. It was spared in the fires but seven of her friends lost their homes.

“A lot of families from the fires, they need help,” she said of her choice to volunteer at the food bank.

The number of volunteers signed up to help at the food bank grew substantially in the fires’ wake, though as with donations, that’s dropped off a bit, too, said Helen Myers, volunteer services coordinator.

In all, about 200 volunteers signed up to help Wednesday.

“I think we’ve had a lot more inquiries from people from a greater distance,” Myers said. “It is really great to have that increased number of people inquiring because now we can really put them to work.”

By 11 a.m, a few dozen boys from Cardinal Newman High School showed up to help sort tons of waiting apples into 4-pound bags. Another group from the high school was scheduled to take over at 1 p.m, and a final crew would arrive around 3:30 p.m. to help with Station 3990, the food bank’s disaster response effort, where volunteers load cars with groceries as families drive through the pick-up line.

The amount of food distributed through Station 3990, so named for the food bank’s street address, now represents 36 percent of the food bank’s total output last month, Goodman said.

Throughout the day Wednesday, every corner of the food bank’s massive campus was in use. In its Community Market, charitable and church groups purchased groceries at deep discounts to stock up food pantries. At 9:10 a.m., two women from Rohnert Park’s Oaks of Hebron, which serves people with developmental disabilities, were looking through piles of canned goods. On their last run to the market, they picked up 600 pounds of food for $66.

Just before noon inside the food bank’s Value Market, a young mother was checking the price of some baby formula on a shelf. The market was designed to allow recipients of CalFresh’s Women, Infants and Children nutrition program to shop in an inviting atmosphere, free of judgment from other shoppers, Goodman said.

About the same time, inside the building’s lobby, 18-year-old Kati Hilario, a freshman at Sacramento State University, was handing out the pumpkin pies she bakes every year as a fundraiser for the food bank. This year, her seventh, she baked her 1,000th pie. A few hours later, Pete Gruchawka, 68, of Kenwood, would pick up his order. Gruchawka, who would also drop off some canned goods, has been ordering pies from Hilario for four years.

Inside the food bank’s kitchen, Chef Don Nolan and his volunteer crew cooked and packaged burrito bowls, which were then blast-frozen to be handed out to those in need. One of Nolan’s Wednesday morning volunteers, Alex Staho, a 17-year-old junior at Windsor High School, is occasionally the recipient of such meals, when the food bank sets up outside his apartment complex. Many of the food bank’s volunteers are or have been clients, Goodman said.

“It’s all about empathy, which really means being able to see yourself in other people’s positions and situations in life. That’s all it is. The fire certainly created empathy because people were like, ‘Wow, that could have been me,’” Goodman said. “The only other time I’ve experienced that kind of empathy was the downturn in the economy in 2008. People did everything right. They went to school. They had a good job. They saved for retirement. … Mother nature was the great equalizer. The economy was the great equalizer.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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