Demand soars at North Coast’s largest food bank
Families struggling to put food on the table during the pandemic have doubled demand at the North Coast’s largest food bank heading into the holiday season, when hunger tends to deepen.
“It’s staggering,” said Redwood Empire Food Bank CEO David Goodman. “And, we’re about to head into winter and I think things are going to get a lot worse. It’s going to become less and less comfortable for people.”
To date, the organization has given away the equivalent of 22 million meals — roughly double what moves through its warehouse just south of Windsor by this time in the average year. The same amount of food would provide three meals to a sellout crowd at the San Francisco Giants’ stadium for an entire season, plus a full postseason, said Goodman, who has led the food bank for two decades.
The coronavirus pandemic and accompanying recession already combined to shatter food distribution records before a series of destructive wildfires hit in August and September, exacerbating local food insecurity, Goodman said. The coming weeks, marked by the arrival of Thanksgiving and extending past January, would amount to one of the organization’s greatest periods of need in its 33 years in operation, he said.
“I can honestly say that food banks across the country have moved from second responders to first responders. That is a fact,” Goodman said. “On the frontline, it’s hunger. We are the 911 for people who are running out of food.”
The demand is reflected in the long lines of cars that have queued up each week since March at the nonprofit’s 300-plus curbside distribution sites across Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
Sandra Nava, 42, of Healdsburg said the groceries-to-go program has been critical to meeting her family’s meal needs. She and her husband were furloughed in March from their jobs in hospitality and landscaping, and their diminished food budget made it difficult to feed their family of five, including three teenagers.
Her husband has since returned to full-time work, but hours are still hard to come by at the hotel where Nava works in Santa Rosa. The family continues to rely on weekly Tuesday pickups from nonprofit Corazón Healdsburg, a partner with Redwood Empire Food Bank.
“It puts me at ease if we get in a tight situation and can’t feed the kids. And it’s good food — vegetables, fruit and healthy stuff,” Nava said. “You can always make chicken noodle soup and get close to a Thanksgiving meal, even if you don’t have the turkey. But if groceries-to-go were to be out, we’re not going to know where to go, and it will be hard for a lot of people.”
The demand has spurred the food bank to seek outside help. Starting in April, it turned to California National Guard troops, who helped pack thousands of emergency food boxes a day. Sonoma County chipped in extra funds to cover costs amid lean times and layered crises.
“David Goodman is a force of nature, and has stepped up in multiple disasters,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. “At the end of the day, people need shelter and they need food, and pretty much everything else is secondary to those urgent needs. They have volunteers and capacity and can respond in real-time. The amount of food they provide at the cost that they do is a key part of the community’s social safety net.”
But resources remain a key concern for the nonprofit, as funding continues to ebb and flow, according to food bank officials. Some foodstuff donors have dried up, with several local grocery chains moving to limit the spread of the coronavirus by removing the donation barrels that sit outside for shoppers to drop canned goods.
The pandemic also has forced the nonprofit to reshape its deployment of volunteers — the crews that sort and bag nonperishables, and help track down stocks of donor food and funds. Though a smaller platoon of National Guard troops continue to assist with emergency food boxes inside the warehouse, churning out 1,200 a day, the soldiers’ deployment is set to run out at the end of December.
“The greatest needs haven’t changed,” Goodman said. “We need volunteerism. We need food, because … without food we’re entirely irrelevant. And we need money, because without money … you can’t do anything. And we call that a perfect serving.”
On Monday afternoon outside the food bank’s warehouse, about 40 volunteers broke down donated bags of food for distribution at sites around the region later this week. Some of supplies were seasonal food items geared toward Thanksgiving, including boxes of stuffing, cans of cranberry sauce and small sacks of potatoes.
Cynthia Carr, 67, of Sonoma has been volunteering at Redwood Empire Food Bank for about three years, and recently began bringing her longtime friend, Deb Pool, 67, of Glen Ellen. The nonprofit has instituted pandemic protocols and the work is outside, so the friends have felt safe continuing to show up.
“We’re coming every week, one day,” Carr said. “But this week it felt even more special, to me, to start Thanksgiving week by being able to do something that was a little bit in service to others. Maybe someday we won’t need food banks — that would be best — but since we do, we’re here.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.