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Sonoma County food banks worry PG&E shut-offs could prevent them from serving residents in need

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More than 600 Sonoma County residents with HIV or other serious illnesses rely each month on groceries delivered by Food for Thought Food Bank. But leaders at the Forestville nonprofit worry that repeated or prolonged power shut-offs during wildfire season could put much of its food supply and vulnerable clientele at risk.

Without power, all the perishable food in Food for Thought’s freezers and refrigerators would spoil, causing up to $10,000 in losses, said Development Director Mark Green.

“We’re a nonprofit organization, so obviously that’s a pretty big hit for us to take,” Green said.

During a shutdown, Green said Food for Thought might be able to distribute nonperishable groceries to clients. But an outage of even two days could force the food bank to close until power is back on and it can restock.

Green said that repeated, shorter outages “might even be worse” for the food bank’s operations. Volunteers would have to tape the walk-in freezers closed and hope the perishable foods don’t spoil, and there would be too much “uncertainty” about whether the food would be safe to distribute if the power was turning off and on.

“We wouldn’t be able to provide groceries for our clients,” Green said. “So it’s a significant number of people that could end up going hungry.”

In addition to distributing food to customers who visit the food bank in person, Food for Thought makes home deliveries two days a week. Guerneville-area resident Robert Gentry depends on these deliveries. To treat his chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Gentry uses an oxygen machine all day and is pretty much homebound.

While a PG&E shut-off that affects Food for Thought would limit his access to food, he says having power cut to his home is far more dangerous because of the machine that keeps him alive.

“It’s like, my life is in your hands,” Gentry said of PG&E. “If they decide to shut it off ... I don’t know what to do.”

Heading into the start of wildfire season, PG&E announced earlier this year it would consider turning off electricity this summer and fall if dry conditions and the potential for high winds increased the likelihood of its equipment causing wildfires. So far, PG&E has initiated five shutdowns, mostly in the Sierra foothills. The North Bay was the subject of a small shut-off Wednesday morning, affecting about 700 customers in Sonoma County and another 700 in Napa County.

Several Sonoma County food banks and pantries turned to PG&E for guidance on how to prepare for an outage. PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said the utility has been meeting with nonprofits to advise them to have an emergency preparedness plan in the event that they don’t have power for 48 hours or more.

Large organizations have their own account representatives to help them through this process, but small nonprofits do not. Contreras said, however, that PG&E has held private and public presentations for local businesses to help them prepare for the preemptive shut-offs.

While PG&E doesn’t offer grants to help nonprofits purchase generators, Contreras said the utility is “open to having a conversation” about how such a program would work. At the moment, PG&E is acting more as a middle man to connect businesses with organizations that provide generators, Contreras said.

Larger food banks in the area already have generators, but their leaders still worried about the impact PG&E’s shutdowns could have on their clients.

Redwood Empire Food Bank is the largest hunger-relief organization on the North Coast, serving 82,000 people in Sonoma County alone. It also provides food to other pantries in the area. While the organization purchased a generator a couple years ago with grant funding, CEO David Goodman said he was concerned that customers wouldn’t be able to refrigerate the food they receive from the food bank.

“If there’s a power outage, then their food can be compromised and they’re already food insecure or hungry, so it’s not like they can just turn around and get more food,” Goodman said. “So it’s much more concerning.”

Some smaller food banks are hustling to put back-up plans in place.

Green of Food for Thought said administrators hope to purchase a generator so the nonprofit can stay open during an extended outage.

The trouble, though, is funding. A generator would cost the nonprofit about $25,000 — and that’s just to keep the freezers and fridges running. A generator to run electricity for the whole facility would cost more, Green said.

Despite extensive research and outreach to PG&E, the food bank’s grant manager hasn’t been able to find a source of funding.

Most likely, Food for Thought will have to rely on private donations for this endeavor, Green said. Other nonprofits in a similar position are skeptical that they will ever be able to afford a generator.

Kaarin Lee — executive director of Santa Rosa’s Friends In Service Here, or FISH, Food Pantry — said that as an all-volunteer organization, FISH would never have the funds for a generator. The pantry would “take a big loss” with all the food in its 13 refrigerators and freezers that would spoil in a power shut-off, Lee said.

FISH would have to temporarily cease operations during an outage, and would be unable to serve the 70 customers it usually sees a day.

“It would break our hearts,” Lee said. “We love our clients. We want to see that they have food.”

Likewise, Rohnert Park-based Neighbors Organized Against Hunger doesn’t have the thousands of dollars it would need for a generator. While it could distribute nonperishable foods during a shutdown to the more than 100 families who visit each Wednesday, John Umland, president of the nonprofit’s board of directors, said that most protein comes from refrigerated or frozen food, which customers would then be losing out on.

Some smaller pantries weren’t too worried about potential shutdowns. Representatives from Healdsburg Food Pantry, Cloverdale Food Pantry and Santa Rosa-based Elisha’s Pantry said volunteers could likely distribute all of their perishable food to customers within a day or two before it spoiled. Until power was restored, the pantries simply wouldn’t stock up on any perishable foods.

Even with some food banks able to weather a shut-off, several Sonoma County residents said they were nervous their main source of food could be at risk during a shutdown.

Guerneville resident Ampara Shells, who sometimes visits FISH, said she depends on food banks at least once a month, and wouldn’t know where to get food if they were closed when she needed them.

“That’s a big, big problem because that is a main source of food for a lot of people,” said Linda Reiter of Santa Rosa, who also visits FISH each month.

Contreras said PG&E has been in communication with nonprofits about how to ensure that the most vulnerable customers can receive the support they need. But some food bank representatives felt that this wasn’t enough.

“It really raises the question of how much of this proposal of PG&E’s is to solve the problem and how much is to reduce their liability,” Green said. “Organizations like ours and clients like ours are going to be hurt if there are these broad-range power outages.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or chantelle.lee@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ChantelleHLee.

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