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SoCal Food Banks Are Seeing Epic Lines And Epic Need

Sandra Aruleba and Gladys Neba plan to continue to host their free food bank outside of their church in Boyle Heights every Monday and Thursday. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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In the last month, 2.7 million Californians have filed for unemployment. With stay-at-home orders in place until at least May 15, those numbers are expected to go up. More than ever, people need help, not just with making rent or keeping businesses afloat but with the most basic necessities — like food.

Nowhere is that clearer than at Southern California's food banks and food pantries. Lines stretch out the door and snake around the block. Cars wait in mile-long queues at drive-through distribution centers.

"I've talked to people that have been in the food banking and pantry business for a lifetime, 30-plus years," says Harald Herrmann, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County. "No one's ever seen anything like this."


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What's The Difference Between A Food Bank And A Food Pantry?

The key difference is storage and distribution. A food bank is typically a non-profit that functions as a storage point — usually a big warehouse — for food donated by retailers, producers, restaurants and grocery stores. Food banks work with drivers to transport food to member agencies that distribute the food to people in need. These agencies can include meal programs, charities and distribution centers, known as food pantries, where people can receive groceries. Food pantries come in all forms. Some are tied to schools and some are mobile, traveling to neighborhoods that may not have a traditional food pantry.


What Are Southern California Food Banks Seeing?

Skyrocketing demand.

The week of April 6, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank distributed roughly 3 million pounds of food (or about 2.5 million meals) in Los Angeles County. "That overall volume is more than double the distribution volume of that same week a year ago," says president and CEO Michael Flood.

"Our demand has gone up March over February by over 30% as a food bank — not as a pantry, just as a food bank," Herrmann says. On April 11, at their weekly drive-through distribution held at Anaheim's Honda Center, Second Harvest gave out food to more than 6,000 cars.

Some of the pantries and agencies Second Harvest works with have seen a 200% increase in demand. Others, especially smaller operations, have closed due to the challenges of physical distancing, fewer volunteers and, in some cases, overwhelming demand.

"What we're seeing as a food bank is the steady increase, longer lines and increased demands, not only on the pantries that we serve but also at the food distribution points that we've opened as a safety net," Herrmann says.

Glen Curado, the CEO and founder of World Harvest Food Bank, has also been seeing a steady increase in patrons. Unlike most food pantries, World Harvest operates more like a co-op grocery. For $40 (cash, credit, or EBT), anyone can come in and fill up a shopping cart with food. (If you can't pay, you can do four hours of volunteer work at the store.)

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"Before the coronavirus, we were getting 100 to 200 families coming through our doors Monday through Friday. That has doubled," Curado says, adding that on April 11, they served some 400 families. "We're seeing a huge spike because of the virus, even more so than back in 2008 during the recession."


Was Food Insecurity A Problem Before The Pandemic?

Yes. It was a critical issue before coronavirus. In California, 4.7 million adults and 2 million children live in households affected by food insecurity, meaning they don't have reliable access to affordable and nutritious food.

"If I have a family of five and I'm working minimum wage, supporting my family, I have two choices: Do I pay the rent so we're not homeless or do I buy food for my family so they don't starve?" Curado says. The pandemic has only worsened those problems.


Who's Showing Up To Get Food Assistance?

The short answer is everyone.

Second Harvest is seeing a broader variety of people requesting food aid. "It's a population that we're calling the newly vulnerable. It's not just the working poor," Herrmann says. He's referring to two-income households that, due to a layoff or a furlough, have gone down to one income; families that relied on now-closed schools to provide some meal assistance for their children; and families that were at least a couple of paychecks away from needing aid.

"Just in [Orange] county alone, over 40% of our residents are tied to an industry that's at high risk of layoff," Herrmann says, referring to businesses associated with travel and hospitality.

"Our food has always gone to a range of people, everyone from families to seniors and veteran and college students," says Genevieve Riutort, chief development officer of the Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica.

Now, she's seeing a wave of people who are new to food banks and who have never needed aid before. Many were laid-off, furloughed or had hours cut at hospitality-related jobs. "Who among us doesn't know someone who is now on unemployment and struggling to get by?" she says.


How Are Food Banks Meeting Increased Demand?

By staying organized, planning ahead and working together with other food banks and relief efforts.

Herrmann says Second Harvest started gearing up in late February. They anticipated that the surplus food that grocery stores provide them would be impacted by the stay-at-home order, so the organization began buying shelf-stable foods, like canned goods, in larger quantities.

"If you look at the global and national landscape, we are in good shape. We have a five or six week cushion," Herrmann says.

Some grocery stores, because they were recently affected by heavy demand, have over-ordered certain items. That overflow is making its way to food banks.

The California Association of Food Banks has been providing food kits to Westside Food Bank and other food banks around the state. Food banks are also working together to share resources. The Farm to Family program allows food banks to share truckloads of fresh produce, especially when one bank simply can't handle so much of a single item.

"No one food bank has the capacity to take an entire truckload of carrots or any single produce item," Riutort says.

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and World Harvest have provided more support to food box delivery programs that focus on vulnerable populations, like the elderly. Additionally, L.A. Regional has supplemented after-school meal programs too. Traditionally, programs like these are designed to provide meals primarily for children. But now families can go to grab-and-go distribution points to pick up food not only for their children, but the entire family as well.


What About COVID Safety Protocols?

To limit potential COVID-19 exposure, for both the public and staff, food banks have had to rethink the way they give out food.

One solution is drive-through distributions — aka pop-up food pantries — which allow can pick up food while practicing social distancing. On April 9, at a drive-through event in Van Nuys, L.A. Regional Food Bank distributed 36-pound food boxes that included chicken, oranges and rice to more than 2,500 families. At another distribution at the Forum in Inglewood, Flood says they were expecting 5,000 families. More than 7,000 turned up.

If someone doesn't have a car, they can still walk and line up — while maintaining six feet of space from other people — at distribution centers.

World Harvest, which operates more like a grocery store, has been following the same protocols as most supermarket chains. They've been sanitizing shopping carts, ensuring staff wear masks and making sure customers and staff are maintaining distance from each other.


What Are The Practical Challenges Of Getting Food To People?

Storing food and getting it to pantries while maintaining social distancing has been complicated.

Westside Food Bank has had to speed up its food distribution to meet the needs of member agencies. "We've never seen this happen before," Riutort says. "Typically, depending on the kind of food, an item might sit in our warehouse anywhere from a week to a couple of months. Now food is going out sometimes the same day it's delivered."

Food banks rely heavily on volunteers, many of whom are retirees. Older adults are at increased risk for complications due to COVID-19, so some food banks and pantries need volunteers. Other food banks aren't taking volunteers because they operate in tight spaces, so they can only work with small crews.


Are Food Banks Going To Run Out Of Food?

Not yet. So far, the overall supply of sourced food has remained steady, even with increased pressure on grocery stores due to stay-at-home restrictions.

At World Harvest, Curado sources some of his food from the hospitality industry. He says with restaurants and hotels mostly shuttered, the supply has remained steady.

Flood, at Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, echoes that sentiment. "We have not experienced a decrease in the amount of food coming into the food bank," he says. He thinks it's because the restaurant industry is largely frozen, freeing up overall supply. "We haven't seen an impact on donated food yet."

He is, however, keeping an eye on the economy. If things continue to worsen, the overall volume of donated food may be impacted, and they'd have to adjust and seek out other resources.

For now, food banks are doing all right, although they're busier than ever. "We've got hundreds of thousands of people that are depending on us right now," Herrmann says. "We take that very seriously, and we're planning accordingly."


How Can The Rest Of Us Help?

Donate money.

It's better than donating goods because more money means food banks can better leverage their wholesale purchasing power. "We can turn every dollar into enough food for four meals," says Riutort of the Westside Food Bank. "Even if you're shopping and buying cans at the 99 Cents Only Store, we can take that dollar and get a case of cans."

If you prefer to donate food, check with your local food bank to see what items they will accept. Remember, if you wouldn't eat it and it isn't nutritious, don't donate it.

If you're interested in contributing financially, or if you want to learn more about your local food bank or pantry, considering visiting their website.

The L.A. Regional Food Bank also has a helpful food pantry locator on its site.

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