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Redwood Empire Food Bank in line for extended National Guard assistance

Gov. Gavin Newsom is considering a request from 19 state lawmakers for a one-year extension of the California National Guard’s deployment to food banks in need of another boost in personnel amid the pandemic, which has also heightened the demand for food distribution.

The legislators’ request — spearheaded by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael — drew an emphatic endorsement from David Goodman, chief executive officer of the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which provides food to more than 300 curbside distribution sites across Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

Since August, a detachment of 10 Guard soldiers has been packing 1,200 food boxes a day at the food bank’s warehouse — a critical chore for the 33-year-old nonprofit, the largest food bank on the North Coast. Before that, about 40 Guard members arrived in April for the same duty, slowly being reduced ahead of the current Fresno-based unit being assigned to the role.

In November alone, the 10-member unit packed nearly 25,000 boxes for household distributions, said Rachelle Mesheau, spokeswoman for the food bank. Goodman said last week he had already sought an extension of the Dec. 31 end date in hopes that troops return.

“If they go away, who’s going to pack the boxes?” Goodman said.

This year has seen demand soar to unprecedented levels for food banks, as joblessness and other financial impacts from the coronavirus pandemic hit households. By late November, Redwood Empire Food Bank had given away the equivalent of 22 million meals — roughly double what would move through its warehouse just south of Windsor by that time in an average year.

For now, another group of about 10 National Guard troops will act as temporary reinforcements for the organization. They are scheduled to arrive Wednesday to learn the ropes from the outgoing unit, and then pitch in until at least the end of March, said Mesheau.

“We’re very, very happy to have them. It’s a relief for us to have the group there right now train the next group,” she said.

The need for help applies to food banks statewide, Levine said in a Dec. 23 letter to Newsom. It was signed by 18 other lawmakers, including Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, whose district includes all of Lake and Napa counties and part of Sonoma County.

Citing research by Northwestern University that showed 23% of California households are experiencing “food insecurity” during the pandemic, the letter said food banks, which draw a majority of their volunteers from COVID-vulnerable seniors are “severely understaffed if left without support.”

With coronavirus infections “continuing at an unrestrained rate we desperately need to continue National Guard troop support at food banks at least through next year,” Levine said in a news release.

Redwood Empire Food Bank employs a staff of 70 supported by 8,500 volunteers. The original stay-home order issued by Newsom in March undermined use of that unpaid corps.

“We were in a world of hurt,” Goodman said. “We can’t feed people without volunteers.”

The volunteer ranks have rebounded somewhat, but at the same time that the National Guard deployment has been pared down, from the original 40 troops to the 10 who will continue now through the winter, he said.

A one-year extension would be ideal, Goodman said, because the pandemic, even with a vaccination program underway, “isn’t going anywhere for a long time.”

The governor’s office is conducting “ongoing assessments to ensure food banks have the resources they need to keep families fed, including evaluating the extension of the California National Guard’s role,” said Cristina Valdivia Aguilar, a spokeswoman for the state’s volunteer branch. A mix of federal aid and state matching funds is being used to offer the 3-month extension through March, she said.

Newsom announced the deployment to food banks a day after issuing the first stay-home order in March, calling it a “short-term response” to a “significant decline” in food bank volunteerism.

Staff Writer Kevin Fixler contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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