Sonoma County food banks struggling to meet continuous high demand

High demand and a drop in donations could eventually force some tough decisions for food banks such as Redwood Empire which is seeing a budget shortfall.|

Until April, Santa Rosa resident Danielle Bayuk, 39, was able to afford food for her three kids without having to visit food banks. Then, emergency allotments for CalFresh and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants ended, and Bayuk’s regular benefit amount couldn’t buy enough groceries for her family.

“I didn’t have to go (to the food bank) at all during COVID, but as soon as we all went back to work and things got back to normal, I started to go to a food bank every Wednesday and to another that’s every other Saturday.”

Over the past year, people who’ve never faced food insecurity in their lives have found themselves in line at one of Sonoma County’s food banks as the cost of food, gas, rent and other essentials grew to be more than they could afford.

Demand has been so high that Redwood Empire Food Bank, the main food bank in the county, is seeing a budget shortfall of just over $1 million halfway through its fiscal year.

Sparse donations, continuous high demand

Around the region, food banks have grappled to meet demand as donations fall off but food and operating costs remain high.

Redwood Empire Food Bank CEO David Goodman said the food bank has a $1.27 million shortfall in a fiscal year that runs July 1 to June 30, 2024. He added that the food bank’s annual budget is $21 million.

The food bank partners with 150 organizations and serves more than 300 monthly distribution sites across Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties. The Friday just before the Christmas holiday, more than 300 people stood in line to receive food at a grocery distribution at one of those sites in Roseland.

Without support, Goodman said, it may have to alter the types of food it provides clients, the areas it covers and other aspects of the operation.

The shortfall also could force it to either give participants less food or give the same amount of food to fewer people.

“It’s the last thing a hunger relief worker wants to say,” Goodman said. “If we don’t have the money, we can’t serve people.”

Goodman said higher prices on goods have hurt everyone’s pocketbook, meaning donations have not been as plentiful as in the past.

“The way it works is that when there’s a need, we serve that need,” he said. “For some reason this year, the support is just shy. Everybody’s giving a little bit less but it adds up.”

Goodman said the agency is hoping new and existing supporters will step in to help.

Food banks across the state, and country, have seen increased demand for food since late 2022 when prices on gas and groceries began to skyrocket.

Prices on groceries aren’t rising as quickly, but many are still finding it hard to afford food on top of other bills.

Sonoma County food banks have been able to meet this demand so far, but are quickly reaching the point at which they cannot serve any more people.

Elisha’s Pantry, one of the partner organizations, distributes food outside of Christ Church United Methodist every Thursday. This year it has served a record amount of people since its opening in July 2005.

“When we started out, we had on average 40 families coming and now we have 180 families,” said Stephen Harper, a member of the pantry’s steering committee. “One of our concerns is we are running out of space to keep enough food on hand to feed more people.”

Elisha’s Pantry is run by three faith-based organizations in Sonoma County. It sometimes gets food donations from grocery stores and orchards, but it mostly buys its food from Redwood Empire Food Bank.

As demand grew, the Pantry had a small building and a box car to expand storage capacity. Harper said the food bank just recently opened up a bigger building but there’s still concern that there still won’t be enough storage to serve clients.

“We’ve been able to handle this (demand), but we’re at the point where we’re starting to talk about what we are going to do,” Harper said. “Are we going to keep allowing the pantry to expand or are we going to have to cut it off somehow?”

Food banks using more of annual budgets for food

When the emergency allotments for CalFresh and SNAP participants ended, the California Association of Food Banks immediately began hearing about the increase in need food bank operators were seeing in their communities.

“The vast majority of food banks received more calls from community members seeking food compared with the preceding months,” said Becky Silva, director of government relations with the California Association of Food Banks.

Silva said three-quarters of food banks had to increase their fundraising efforts, with two-thirds having to use a disproportionate share of their annual budgets to keep supplying current levels of food.

She added that some food banks are starting to talk about shuttering pantries.

“(Food banks) just don’t have the food and the resources to sustain them anymore, and it’s been a real challenging situation for most food banks around the state,” Silva said.

Silva said there are a handful of federal and state policies in the works aiming to prevent hunger. Some involve permanently increasing the minimum CalFresh benefit for all households to at least $50 per month or expanding the eligibility and ending exclusionary rules for SNAP and CalFresh benefits.

Conversations continue

Jennifer Emery is executive director at F.I.S.H. of Sonoma County and said its food pantry received a large influx of donations during the pandemic, which allowed clients to receive grocery allotments twice a month.

But with that money gone and sparser donations, the food pantry is cutting back client participation to once a month as of January.

Emery wasn’t able to provide how much the pantry’s yearly operation costs were, but said as of late, they rarely receive “more than we spend hence why our reserves from COVID have been depleted.”

She added the food pantry’s participation is up about 20% from around this time last year as it serves around 100 families a day, five days a week.

“We just can’t sustain it twice a month, and with the increase in clientele and decrease in donations, it’s just not sustainable,” Emery said. “These are ongoing conversations on a daily basis in our organization.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sara Edwards at 707-521-5487 or sara.edwards@pressdemocrat. com. On Twitter @sedwards380.

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