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Stepping up: Sonoma County nonprofits find ways to feed the needy during pandemic

It’s almost as if Food For Thought was made for this pandemic. The Forestville-based food bank specializes in delivering groceries, and in some cases fully prepared meals, to the homes of people dealing with illnesses.

In fact, the agency was brought into existence three decades ago, by a different virus. Food For Thought was born in the late 1980s, when residents of the Russian River valley began collecting food and raising money for their neighbors with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. It has since expanded its mission, serving those suffering from a variety of illnesses. By 2020, it was serving 850 clients per week. Then the coronavirus hit.

To meet an immediate need for food in the community, executive director Ron Karp recalled, Food For Thought doubled its deliveries. In mid-May, working with the county’s public health department, it unveiled a new program catering specifically to coronavirus patients and their families, who were struggling to get food while in isolation. Since then, the agency’s COVID-19 nutrition program has served over 1,000 people.

Food For Thought has been there for its clients even as its usual fundraisers — an annual gala, various food drives — have been curtailed. It’s been able to step up, in a time of dire need, thanks to unexpected streams of income, from charitable foundations and from the county. Old donors have dug deeper; new donors have materialized — over 300, Karp said. “We’re not even sure exactly where they came from.”

Eight months into the pandemic, this is the pattern among nonprofits feeding the hungry in Sonoma County. The need for food has come down, somewhat, from the astronomic levels it reached in the spring following the initial emergency public health orders that shut down schools and many businesses.

But that need remains stubbornly, historically high, even as the agencies tasked with alleviating hunger face headwinds collecting food and contributions. And yet, local nonprofits have been up to the challenge.

Stretching a dollar

Before the coronavirus, Redwood Empire Food Bank served 30,000 people per month in Northern California. That number spiked to over 150,000 in April — “more than a 400% increase, which was totally crazy,” said Rachelle Mesheau, the agency’s marketing manager.

After descending to “the high 120-thousands” during the summer, that number is now hovering around 90,000 people per month, “our new normal.” she said.

With food collections down, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some regular donors are giving money instead.

“And we can stretch a dollar pretty far,” Mesheau said. Farms and businesses have upped their donations, often in creative ways. Costeaux French Bakery in Santa Rosa began a “buy one, give one” campaign that’s enabled it to give thousands of loaves of bread to the food bank. On Friday, the food bank picked up 14 pallets of applesauce made from locally picked apples, thanks to the efforts of Sebastopol’s Manzana Products, along with the nonprofits Farm To Pantry and Slow Food.

The federal government is helping out, too. From farmers who suddenly have no buyers, the Department of Agriculture is buying food, which it is in turn donating to food banks. Those “Farmers To Families” food boxes have been immensely popular.

Less welcome, to some recipients, has been the signed letter from President Donald Trump that the agriculture department requires vendors to include in every box. Some, like the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, have refused.

Redwood Empire Food Bank has chosen to include the Trump letter, along with its own message, in English and Spanish, explaining that the companies that pack the boxes must include the letter, as part of their contract with government.

“We wanted to make it clear,” the note said, “that the Redwood Empire Food Bank is not a government agency and does not approve of this letter, nor do we endorse any political candidates. We always have been, and will continue to be, a safe place for you to access food assistance.”

Ripple effects of the pandemic

Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa served meals to 538 households in February. Three months later, that number exceeded 1,500. It’s now leveled off at 1,200 a month, said Jennielynn Holmes, the agency’s chief program officer.

“And I don’t see the need going away anytime soon,” Holmes said. “If anything, it’s going to continue at this level, and possibly get worse, as we continue to see the ripple effects of the pandemic.”

Catholic Charities workers talk to their clients, trying to find out the root cause behind their need. “If it’s the loss of a job,” Holmes said, “we ask, ’How can we help you find another job.’”

“We want to fix the reason why someone’s coming in for food,” she said.

Feeding students

In March, Sonoma County received close to 2,000 new applications for CalFresh benefits, formerly known as food stamps — nearly double the number from March 2019. While that increase has slowed, said Felisa Pinson, economic assistance director for the county's Human Services Department, applications for those benefits are up 22% in 2020.

School closures have increased the need for food aid. To help children who’ve lost access to free or reduced price school meals, California’s Department of Social Services is distributing “Pandemic EBT” cards. Of the roughly 30,000 Sonoma County students eligible for those benefits, nearly 27,000 have taken advantage of them, Pinson said.

Who doesn’t love a good taco?’

Accustomed to feeding some 150 families at its weekly “Groceries-To-Go” food distributions, the nonprofit Corazon Healdsburg saw that number rise to 400 in March. It’s now down to between 200 and 250, said head of programs Angie Sanchez.

Where has Corazon come up with all that extra food?

From a network of partners, large and small. In addition to assistance from Redwood Empire Food Bank, Corazon gets 150 boxes a week of organic produce from the Growing The Table food initiative. Businesses like Healdsburg’s Single Thread Farm and Restaurant have donated meals, as has the Sonoma Family Meal Emergency Food Network.

Corazon also has partnered with World Central Kitchen, which sends food trucks into underserved communities in north county. “Every time we go out, we serve 300 individuals with a warm meal,” Sanchez said.

Those trucks go to low-income areas, sometimes right up to the fields, where farmworkers are happy to see them.

Not surprisingly, they serve Mexican food. “We want to be culturally relevant,” Sanchez said. “And who doesn’t love a good taco?”

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

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