PICTURED: Food collected by Food Share for distribution at its pop-up pantries. Photo courtesy of Food Share
by Kit Stolz
Never in the history of Ventura County have so many residents faced hunger and the need for food, say local officials including Monica White, the director of the county’s largest and best-known such nonprofit, Food Share.
“On March 1 of this year, we were serving 75,000 people a month,” White said. “We were proud of what we were doing at the time, but 30 days later, on April 1, we were serving 150,000 people a month.”
That adds up to more than one out of every six Ventura County residents. White and other food bank officials say that during the COVID-19 pandemic, a need for food has come home to tens of thousands of county residents who likely did not think of it in the past, including many people who may be our neighbors, friends or relatives.
Food insecurity grows during pandemic
“It’s really due to the economic impact of COVID, with everyone shutting down and the retail establishments especially,” White said. “The population earning less than $20 an hour were impacted the most heavily, and that demographic is also the most vulnerable community because these people don’t have big nest eggs or three months of savings to draw on.”
As the most populous state, California will see the largest increase in food insecurity in the nation, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit association of food banks. According to a report1 issued in May, 6.4 million people in California face hunger, with 2.1 million of those experiencing food insecurity that they did not face before the pandemic.
A high percentage of these people are children: Feeding America estimates that if the unemployment rate rises to 11.5 percent in 2020, child poverty and child hunger will soar, such that almost one-quarter of children in the nation will be food insecure.
“When immediately with no warning these people went to zero income, losing their job or being furloughed, really the only way to make ends meet is to supplement the household income with food,” said White.
The Feeding America survey results were based on a look early in the crisis at what would happen if unemployment should rise to 11.5 percent. But in Ventura County in April, the rate of unemployment rose to nearly 14 percent, and since has only declined slightly, to 12.6 percent.
“There’s a significant need here in Ventura County,” said Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett (Dist-1). “COVID has exposed the unequal distribution of wealth and well being in our society. It’s hitting people at the bottom hard, while white-collar workers can ride this out while working at home. I have been impressed with the people of this county: I think the nonprofits, the volunteers and the governments have all come together to make food insecurity a real priority.”
In April, as unemployment rose to a peak of 13.9 percent in the county, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved $855,000 in taxpayer funding for Food Share and its network. The taxpayer funds will be paid out at a rate of $285,000 a month, mostly to Food Share, coordinated through the county Office of Emergency Services (OES). The emergency funding will be largely reimbursed by FEMA, at a rate of 75 percent, and by the state government, at a rate of 18.7 percent, said Patrick Maynard, OES director, leaving Ventura County taxpayers responsible for 6.3 percent of the cost. Although the funding was for three months, the county expects to continue to draw on the funds FEMA made available for the national emergency.
“FEMA will continue the funding as long as the federal declaration of emergency stands,” said Bennett. “My understanding is that it will be extended for the rest of the year as needed. [On the Board of Supervisors] we don’t actually have to take a vote to maintain it, although we may need to make internal budget adjustments. We are going to continue to fund Food Share.”
Food Share itself has been turned almost literally inside out by the risk of infection. Before COVID-19 came to Ventura County, Food Share distributed food through 190 small pantries, in churches, community centers, and other indoor locations. Now — after 10 chaotic days in March, in which the multimillion dollar operation had to completely change its methods — Food Share distributes food six times a week at larger outdoor drive-through sites around the county. The new outlets are now called pop-up pantries2.
“By March 15, about 25 percent of our pantries had to close down. Our volunteers were sheltering in place, and we were seeing a reduced amount of food available for us,” White explained. “We rescue food that stores can no longer sell, but shelf-stable dairy and deli items were dramatically decreased because everybody was stocking up at home. In addition to now having a reduced amount of food to distribute, we had a huge increase in the amount of food we were buying.”
White and other food bank officials say the demand for food in the county has risen to levels unheard of before the pandemic, even during the Great Recession.
“We distributed one million pounds of food in March. Next month, it was two million. In June we hit three million and in July it was 3.5 million pounds of food,” White said.
Farmers to Families
White noted that Food Share has also accessed food for Ventura County residents through a USDA program called the Farmers to Families Food Box.
At the Oxnard warehouse of The Berryman — which in the past had grown food mostly for non-retail outlets such as restaurants — a team now assembles boxes of fresh produce to be distributed by Food Share. Les Clark, the president of The Berryman, which has warehouses in Oxnard, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, said that the company bid aggressively to supply food banks in the three counties.
“This was designed to alleviate the problem of farmers throwing out food that had been grown primarily for restaurants and schools,” Clark said. “Restaurant supply came almost to a halt, and schools were closing. We had food for people in need who had lost their jobs. The government program worked almost exactly as intended. We bid aggressively and were able to put all our 240 employees — most of whom had been furloughed to one day a week — back to work. We used existing contacts we had set up with the growers for the food.”
Clark stresses that the fresh produce, which the company had contracted in the past to deliver primarily to restaurants, schools and hospitals, is of high quality.
“It’s a 38-pound box which includes 10 pounds of potatoes and miscellaneous fruits and vegetables, usually 10-12 items, all U.S. grown, including watermelons, nectarines, plums, cabbage, carrots, apples and Ventura County produce such as celery, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce and oranges,” he said.
“We feed everybody who shows up in line”
At a pop-up pantry site in Oxnard in August, dozens of volunteers in a well-choreographed operation put boxes of food in the trunks of cars of registered recipients who lined up at the College Park site. Recipients waiting in the cars expressed gratitude for the food and agreed on its quality, although some said they didn’t like waiting for hours.
“It’s very good,” said Solomon Patagan of Oxnard, driving a mini-van with his partner and two infant children. “All kinds of fresh fruits. This year for the first time we have come here.”
Another first-timer is Gloria Foster of Oxnard, who said that she has been coming to Food Share to get food for her mother, her cousin and herself.
“We pay for this food,” she said, clarifying that she meant that all taxpayers paid for the program. “Some people have shame about it, but that’s not right. It’s not fair. I told my friend, whatever I don’t use, I give to other people — I don’t take from anybody.”
Volunteers working at the College Park distribution site said that recipients were grateful and that they personally enjoyed the work.
“We love Food Share,” said Sister Jacobson, one of four young missionaries from the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-Day Saints who have been volunteering at the site. “We started working here a month ago and it’s been awesome.”
Assistance has also come from the 146th Airlift Wing of the California Air National Guard. The 146th has been stationed with Food Share since March 27, helping to pack food boxes that have fed more than half a million people in
For Food Share’s White, facing the suspicion that some have that people who are not in need are taking food is a painful part of the job.
“I got a question from a member of the community that drove by a distribution site and said she saw somebody in a brand-new car waiting and asked how do you know they need the food?” White recalled. “I asked, ‘How do you know they don’t?’ It’s a humbling experience to have to wait in line for free food. There may be a distribution at noon and you have to wait for hours. It’s not our job to judge. We feed everybody who shows up in line. This is our job. Our job is to worry about the people in need.”
White says she has not seen any decline in need, and expects Food Share to be distributing millions of pounds of food in the county as long as the pandemic continues and as long as the community continues to support the effort, for perhaps 12-18 months.
Restaurants supporting seniors
Martha Shapiro, who oversees the “Great Plates Delivered” program at the Senior Concerns center in Thousand Oaks, said that among her seniors, need for food has exploded. Senior Concerns had been delivering 800 meals a week to seniors; now under the new program it’s 5,000 a week.
The idea3 is to support restaurants, arranging for them to make three meals a day to be delivered to seniors at home, at a cost of $66 per senior per day.
The program, launched in April by the state of California, also relies on emergency FEMA funding and has been extended through September. Other senior centers in Ventura County, including Help of Ojai, are participating as well.
Shapiro believes COVID-19 has fundamentally changed food banks and the way they will operate in the future.
“What we realized and what our [funding partner] the Area Agency for the Aging realized is that we had a lot of seniors living on the cusp of food insecurity,” Shapiro said. “They might have gone to congregate sites before [COVID-19], they might have family and might have just been getting by and not looking for help, but they can’t ignore it anymore.”
- “The Impact of the Coronavirus on Local Food Insecurity,” Feeding America, May 19, 2020. www.feedingamerica.org/sites/default/files/2020-05/Brief_Local%20Impact_5.19.2020.pdf