Demand doubled at food pantries since pandemic's start

10/28/2020

What does it take to distribute half a million pounds of food during a pandemic? Teamwork, flexibility and a network of resource centers staffed with young people eager to make a difference.

In every corner of West Marin, nonprofits are stepping up to serve the unemployed, the undocumented and anyone struggling to make ends meet. Four organizations—the Tomales Town Hall, the Bolinas Community Center, West Marin Community Services and the San Geronimo Valley Community Center—have handed out over 650,000 pounds of food since March, serving an estimated 15 percent of West Marin residents each week. 

Food security is not the only responsibility facing these organizations: They are also giving direct financial assistance and attempting to maintain a sense of community, all without the usual volunteer base of older adults, who are staying at home because they face a higher risk from Covid-19.

“It’s been challenging—lots of adapting, reinventing, thinking outside the box,” said Yareli Cervantes, the emergency assistance manager at West Marin Community Services.

A roller coaster year for these four nonprofits began in March, when public health officials issued a stay-at-home order and unemployment spiked above 10 percent in Marin. An immediate and dire need for money and food became apparent, but the typical methods of distributing would not work. People couldn’t visit offices to apply for financial assistance or to choose their food, so at the same time that the need doubled, resource centers had to reinvent a service model.

Each Thursday, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank delivers a shipment to the nonprofits, which distribute it that afternoon. Before the pandemic, volunteers laid the food out on tables, and people walked through and chose what they want. The Bolinas Community Center still uses that model with extra safety measures, while the rest of West Marin’s pantries now pre-sort hundreds of bags each week. In Lagunitas and Tomales, cars line up and drive through to pick up each Thursday, while the pantry at West Marin Community Services, which is intended as a safety net for the whole region, stays open all week. Altogether, the organizations serve an average of 630 households a week.

People accessing food pantries and financial assistance these days range in backgrounds, situations and demographics. Some are familiar faces, while others are new, shocked by the effects of the pandemic. Many come in feeling embarrassed or believing that their needs aren’t as great as others, but when employees look at their situation, it’s clear they can benefit from support.

Though the need has stabilized since the beginning of the pandemic, it has done so at an elevated level. Before March, food pantries were serving an estimated 8 percent of West Marin; now that demand has doubled, reflecting national and regional trends. Food pantries are meeting the demand, and more people are out there who need food but are unaware of the service or are afraid to ask, said Roy Pitts, a volunteer who has helped coordinate services.

Collaboration has been key in the effort, both externally and internally. On a shared mission, nonprofits meet each week in a new committee, called the West Marin Food Distribution Group, to plan and go over challenges. And despite the physical separation, employees are working together more than ever. 

At the two main resource centers, in Point Reyes Station and San Geronimo, the staff is anchored by a team of young women driven by the obvious need in their communities.

“I’ve never felt prouder of the work that I’m doing,” said Alexa Davidson, a coordinator for the San Geronimo Valley Community Center who has overseen the distribution of over $300,000 in direct financial assistance. “The fact that I get to work on a solution during this very uncertain time feels good to me.”

Fellow coordinator Rebecca Teague shared that seniors have been especially thankful. The food pantry allows them to cut down on shopping trips, and they’re leaning on staff to feel connected: When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, Ms. Teague said three seniors called her in tears. Because the twice-a-week senior lunches have been canceled, seniors come to the food bank line seeking personal contact.

“We’ve always had intimacy with people coming into the center, but there’s been this showing of being sad and being afraid that wasn’t there before. It’s created this really sweet bond,” she said.

Traditionally, the community center plays the additional role of being a place for people to gather, and staff are not abandoning that purpose. But except for the pantry drive-through, all the connection takes place online now. Art shows are on Instagram, book clubs are on Zoom and mental health and wellness resources are on the website.

A silver lining of the pandemic is that community centers have made long-desired technological advances, director Dave Cort said, unlike anything he's seen in his three decades in charge. “Our younger generation kind of held my hand for me to use all of these tools when I was dragging my feet prior to the pandemic. It took a crisis like this to kick my butt,” he said. Now, he's a Zoom and Google Drive pro.

The center has had to adapt without a third of its income that usually comes from events and fees for programs such as afterschool day care program and gym rentals. A federal loan helped them get through the last fiscal year, and this year they’re attempting to double donations, without any in-person fundraising events.

West Marin Community Services is also fiscally challenged because the thrift store, a key source of revenue, was closed for months and is now open for limited hours. Thankfully, donations have been generous, and grants from Marin County, the Marin Community Foundation and the West Marin Fund have been steady.

Staff turnover has also been a challenge for the nonprofit. Jorge Martinez, once a fixture, resigned as a program manager in the spring, and despite director Socorro Romo’s best efforts to accommodate employees, other staff also moved on. The resource center is small and has few windows, so they only bring in volunteers on Thursdays for food sorting. But the small staff—Ms. Romo, Ms. Cervantes, Alma Sanchez, Heather Oakley and Seamus Tomkins—has stepped up.

Food pantries are not the only organizations handing out meals. West Marin Senior Services is delivering prepared meals and fresh food to 48 seniors, while the Shoreline Unified School District and Nicasio School have delivered lunches for families every weekday since March to over 150 households. 

In Bolinas, volunteers are preparing dinners at the community center, an evolution of spontaneous efforts to feed people at the beginning of the crisis. Two programs, the Bolinas Community Kitchen and No Place Like Home, are cooking up to 100 hot meals every weeknight.