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North Bay’s largest food bank grapples with unforeseen demand amid soaring prices

Since 2021, Redwood Empire Food Bank has seen demand increase 38% as more low-income community members struggle to afford the already high cost of living and the prices of everyday goods continue to increase.|

How to help

Those wishing to volunteer can sign up for shifts packaging food in the warehouse, helping out at a distribution site or joining a volunteer group by visiting refb.org/ways-to-give/volunteer.html.

Information on how to donate food items can be found at refb.org/ways-to-give/donate-food.html. Monetary donations can be made at bit.ly/3UYkbyx.

Organizers of Redwood Empire Food Bank, the North Bay's largest hunger relief program, say they have seen demand skyrocket to unseen levels while the cost of goods continues to soar.

Redwood Empire, which both distributes food through their own programs and supplies 19 partner organizations in Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties, serves low-income individuals, families, children and older adults who face food insecurity.

Between October 2020 and October 2021, the food bank saw the number of households using their services double. But since 2021, demand has increased 38% as more low-income community members struggle to afford the already high cost of living as the prices of everyday goods continue to increase.

The food bank is expecting to spend 50% more on food this year compared to last year, said operations director Alison Smith.

In a region where housing and other living costs are high, food assistance is critical for many individuals and families, said Allison Goodwin, director of programs at Redwood Empire.

To keep up with demand, the food bank stocks up on food items based on need in previous months and years, “but we don’t have a crystal ball to predict the exact need,” Smith said.

While Goodwin keeps tabs on need from the ground level, Smith oversees the other side of operations, which includes ordering food for their own distribution as well as for the partner organizations that rely on them to keep their pantries stocked.

In holiday months of November and December, food assistance needs typically run high, particularly as people’s utility bills increase and they face expenses related to family gatherings and travel.

But food bank workers were not expecting more than 38,000 households to ask for help in October, a number that exceeds peak pandemic levels.

“Without fail at all of our distributions, were pretty much running out of groceries by the end, if not a few minutes before the end of each distribution,” Goodwin said. “It's just the reality, and we're trying to keep up.”

A graph shows that Redwood Empire Food Bank has already seen households served this fiscal year surpass the previous two years. (Redwood Empire Food Bank)
A graph shows that Redwood Empire Food Bank has already seen households served this fiscal year surpass the previous two years. (Redwood Empire Food Bank)

While the supply chain has improved compared to last year, “prices have not,” Smith said. And to make maters worse, national donations have decreased.

As a member of Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks across the U.S., Redwood Empire typically receives national donations alongside local donations. However, lately, those national donations have become “hard to come by this year,” Smith said. She said it might be because all food banks are strained right now and national donors are choosing not to donate as much.

On top of that, inflation has increased the cost of eggs, dairy, meat and fresh produce, which means the food bank can afford less of these items, but they are also the items that low-income families need the most.

While demand seems to be increasing, the food banks are asking for contributions to relieve the strain, whether that’s in the form of time, monetary donations or food items, Goodwin said.

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

Alana Minkler

Breaking news & general assignment reporter, The Press Democrat

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering breaking news, tribes and youth, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

How to help

Those wishing to volunteer can sign up for shifts packaging food in the warehouse, helping out at a distribution site or joining a volunteer group by visiting refb.org/ways-to-give/volunteer.html.

Information on how to donate food items can be found at refb.org/ways-to-give/donate-food.html. Monetary donations can be made at bit.ly/3UYkbyx.

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