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Grim byproduct of the pandemic in Sonoma County: increased hunger

It was Friday morning and Mark Weiss was working on four hours of sleep. He'd just finished baking and wrapping 400 l?oaves of bread for two area food pantries. His lower back hurt. His feet were sore. On the bright side, he said, “my arms and shoulders are going to be ripped from rounding all this bread.”

Weiss, the owner of Raymond's Bakery in Cazadero, is beloved by locals for his generosity, whether feeding the hungry or lodging people in his B&B, free of charge, during floods and fires.

“When there's a need,” he said, “I make stuff happen.”

Lately, he's been blown away by the scale of the need. Where Weiss baked, on average, 50 to 100 loaves a week to give away before the coronavirus tanked America's economy, he's now up to 2,000 loaves some weeks.

“In 18 years of doing this,” he said Friday, “this is the most I've ever baked.”

You've heard of foot soldiers. Weiss is one of Sonoma County's food soldiers - individuals, businesses, nonprofits and government agencies - rallying to fight the most serious health threat ushered in by the pandemic, other than COVID-19 itself.

That's food insecurity. With the economy shedding jobs at an unprecedented rate - over 22 million Americans filed new unemployment claims in the past four weeks, according to the U.S. Department of Labor - the need for food assistance has also reached historic, Great Depression-level highs. That demand was on staggering display last week as 10,000 cars queued up outside a food bank on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas.

The specter of hunger also hangs over Sonoma County, where food insecurity is a problem during the best of times. Last year, the Redwood Empire Food bank served 82,000 people in the county - 1 in 6 of its residents, according to CEO David Goodman.

With the economy in tatters for the foreseeable future, “We expect that to double,” he said.

For Redwood's Thursday food distribution at Santa Rosa's Resurrection Church, staffers devised a six-lane drive-up system to keep traffic off nearby Stony Point Road. Good thing they did: over 500 cars were served in a two-hour period.

And that was for just one of the food bank's dozens of weekly handouts. Over the past month, the number of needy people lining up to get food at those distributions has jumped 50%, said Goodman. As it has during previous disasters, the Redwood food bank has activated an elevated alert level called 3990 - which doubles as the nonprofit's Brickway Boulevard address - triggering additional distributions of food.

Following the Tubbs fire of October 2017, the Redwood food bank itself was the site of two, extra drive-thru food distributions per week. Those events were canceled once the need abated - 14 months after the fires.

The dire need created by this pandemic is all but sure to exceed that, Goodman believes. Despite happy talk from the nation's capital about the country soon reopening, he's preparing for slower, more painful recovery. “Hoping for the best isn't going to help us,” he said. As a nonprofit tasked with feeding the hungry, “we need to prepare for the worst.”

‘Just the beginning'

Mary Scott was excited. After being burned out of her apartment by the Tubbs fire, she was finally moving back in on Friday - 2½ years later. Meanwhile, she said, she had a 14-year-old son at home and “no food in the pantry.”

That's why she was in her silver Hyundai on Thursday, a Siberian Husky pacing impatiently in the backseat, waiting along with more 100 other motorists to pick up three containers of food at Catholic Charities on Airway Drive.

“I am so grateful,” said Scott, who was taking advantage of the nonprofit's food handout for the first time.

As a newbie, she has plenty of company.

Catholic Charities normally serves around 1,000 people per month with food. Since the economy went south, that number is up to 1,700 - “an astronomical amount of need,” said Jennielynn Holmes, the nonprofit's chief program officer, “and it's only going to grow.”

Even after the shelter-in-place order is lifted, she pointed out, “not everyone's going to have a job to go back to.”

Just because rent payments for some may have been delayed, “that doesn't mean it's not owed,” said Holmes, who noted that people will soon be hit with a backlog of bills.

“The crisis we're seeing right now is just the beginning. We need to gear up for the new wave of need coming our way.”

Meanwhile, she's had to reassign staff just to help return the surge of calls from people inquiring about food distributions.

She described the difficulty of having to reassure people calling for the first time “and just breaking down, because the never thought they'd have to ask for charity.”

Putting pride aside

It was only a month or so ago that Michael thought people were overreacting, lining up before stores opened their doors, “freaking out about toilet paper.”

These days, he's sharing that alarm. Recently laid off, the 26-year-old Santa Rosan has a line on another job. But the coronavirus halted progress on his background check. Now there's no telling when he might work again. As the weeks went by with no paycheck coming in, he and his wife grew more concerned. They have a 2-year-old boy. Finally, said Michael, who shared his struggles with the condition his last name not be published, “I decided to reach out for help.”

On Wednesday, he pulled into the parking lot at the Shiloh Neighborhood Church, site of a Redwood Empire Food Bank distribution, where he was greeted warmly by volunteers and given a box of mixed produce, a box of “shelf-stable” nonperishables and a frozen pork loin roast.

The experience must not have been too traumatic: he returned a short time later with his mother.

Anxiety levels varied throughout the line. A woman driving a red Blazer talked about her heart palpitations and difficulty sleeping because of the pandemic. But her son had recently moved in, which made her happy.

Idling behind her in line in a Saturn sedan, a 60-something couple was asked how they were doing.

“Bored stiff,” joked the husband.

“We're doing OK, getting yard work done,” added his wife.

“Usually, we volunteer here,” said the husband. “Now we're … trying it ourselves.”

Josh Ratiani, Shiloh's pastor, explained the couple's discomfort. “People who are used to helping aren't used to asking for help.”

All over the county - and country - people unaccustomed to seeking charity, are having to put their pride aside.

Last month, Sonoma County received close to 2,000 new applications for CalFresh benefits, formerly known as food stamps - up nearly 90% from March 2019. Another 965 applications arrived in the first half of April, said Felisa Pinson, economic assistance director for the county's Human Services Department. In response to the extreme need, she added, the state is giving Calfresh recipients its maximum allotment, meaning a family of four is now eligible to receive $646 a month.

While need has gone up recently in the wake of the North Bay's natural disasters the past few years, said Pinson, “This is totally unlike anything we've gone through before. This a whole different level.”

The need for food assistance will be “prolonged,” agrees Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who already knows of several businesses in her district which won't be coming back when lockdown orders are lifted. Hopkins expressed concern that many of her rural, West County constituents - especially those with limited transportation options - don't have access to frequent food distributions.

Six months ago, the nonprofit Corazon Healdsburg was feeding some 300 families per month. Today, said the group's CEO, Ariel Kelley, “we're seeing 300 a week, or more.”

Many of those seeking assistance for the first time ask what paperwork they should bring, to prove they're in need. “They answer is ‘Nothing,'?” said Kelley. After providing their name, address and the number of people in their household, they're given food without judgment or further questions.

It was a different virus, three decades ago, that brought the Forestville-based nonprofit Food For Thought into existence. In the late 1980s, residents of the Russian River valley began collecting food and raising money for their neighbors with HIV.

Founded in 1988, Food For Thought officially expanded its mission in 2014 to providing “healing food and nutrition” to those dealing with critical illnesses including but not limited to HIV.

It was chugging along, serving meals to 850 people per week, until a month or so ago. Since then, said executive director Ron Karp, “we've been getting a huge surge of calls for our services - more than we've had in the history of our agency.”

The spike in demand comes at a time when the nonprofit has lost significant funding. In addition to postponing its fundraising gala because of the risks posed by large gatherings, the group canceled food drives that would've brought in $200,000. While individual donations and emergency grants have come in,they've been nowhere near enough to offset the $500,000 the organization will lose over the next several months.

Increased empathy

As donations contract and volunteers become more scarce, neither Karp, nor Holmes of Catholic Charities, nor Goodman of the Redwood food bank, can say precisely how they will find the wherewithal to meet the coming, unprecedented demand for food.

Nor do any of them seem daunted by the challenge.

Because so many will be finding out for the first time what it means to be hungry, said Goodman, searching for a silver lining, more people will “become empathetic to what it means to be hungry. They'll learn that it's not the lazy, or undeserving, who need help.”

When the crisis has finally passed, he went on, all of us will have to answer certain questions:

“Did you help, or did you hide?”

Taking her place on the front lines is his colleague, program coordinator Juana Renovato, now in her 17th year with the food bank.

Renovato set up Wednesday morning's distribution at the Monte Vista apartments near Coddingtown. The event was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m., but cars lined up long before then.

Some arrived on foot, including an elderly woman pushing a cart. Translating for her, Renovato said the woman was picking up food for herself and disabled daughter, who lives with her.

While the woman was thankful for this program, said Renovato, “she is not too good. She has hunger.”

For an event at this complex a month earlier, Renovato had ordered food for 150 families. This time, to be on the safe side, she ordered for 200. But those pulling into the lot after 9:30 got bad news:

They'd already run out of food.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ausmurph88.

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