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.”