We all know that change is inevitable and can often provide the impetus to take a fresh look at things and find new ways forward, but the dramatic changes Food for People has gone through in recent months has brought us into some entirely new territory. The loss of our main facility on 14th St. followed shortly by shelter in place orders and the need for dramatically different safety protocols due to COVID-19 have been a lot to swallow in one fell swoop, and we’ve been “dancing as hard as we can” ever since! I’d like to take this opportunity to outline what that looks like for us right now.
Operations: Our 14th St. facility has housed the majority of staff and program operations since 1998, but the extensive damage caused by the sewer inundation and the subsequent mitigation has forced us to limit operations to the rear part of the building, which suffered the least damage. The pantry, offices, and mid-warehouse spaces are nonfunctional, so we had to move staff to three other offsite locations as the pandemic was unfolding. The Eureka Choice Pantry was moved to the former Chamber of Commerce building at 2112 Broadway, along with Pantry, Outreach, and Local Food Resources staff. We were already leasing additional warehouse space on 2nd St. so those operations have continued and several staff moved into the three office spaces available there. We were able to lease additional warehouse space on Cedar St., which has been critical to our ability to purchase food to meet increased demand.
Food Distributions at Pantry and Senior Program sites: We’ve spent the last 12 years focused on the “choice” model of food distribution, which gave our clients the opportunity to choose the foods that best fit their personal, dietary, and cultural needs. It was structured as a “shopping trip” and had its genesis at the height of the last recession when lots of people who had never had to ask for help before were coming into the food bank seeking food assistance. We could see how impersonal it was to just hand someone a bag of food and assume it would meet their needs, so our staff conducted nationwide research to find models that were more welcoming and dignified, and we adapted what we learned for our own programs. It has worked well, providing opportunities to chat with folks about recipe ideas and personal preferences, and has provided us with new insights into the most needed and desired types of foods, which has helped guide our purchasing. And most importantly, it has provided those coming to the food bank with a new level of dignity.Unfortunately, that model doesn’t work within the new COVID-19 safety protocols, and we’ve had to shift gears and provide pre-assembled food bags to limit exposure and keep our participants, staff, and volunteers safe. Intake interviews, which made it possible for us to learn more about each individual’s circumstances and provide referral information, have been suspended, so we’ve been unable to gather information about the additional struggles they are facing in light of the pandemic, and have had limited opportunities to “catch up” with people we’ve been serving for years. Drive-up and drive-through models have been implemented at sites that have the space to accommodate them, and safe distancing requirements are in place, using traffic cones, caution tape, and signage at sites where a drive-through won’t work. All of our employees are required to wear gloves and masks, and food bags and boxes are placed on a table for the individual to pick up, which is then sanitized after each transaction. In an effort to keep everyone safe, we require program participants to wear masks as well and try to keep extras on hand for those who may not have them. It was tough to get an adequate supply of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer initially, and we’re grateful to generous community members who shared with us.
Backpacks for Kids: We are SO grateful to school personnel across the county who helped us keep the program going once the schools closed!! We asked them how they wanted to proceed once school closures were announced, and every one of the 35 sites said they would make it work. They made the commitment to pick up the food, pack the bags, and deliver them to the kids’ homes weekly through the end of the school year.
Summer Lunch: This summer would have been our 24th year as a sponsor of the Children’s Summer Lunch program, serving children at 20 sites countywide, but uncertainty about the federal requirement that meals be served in a congregate environment, combined with the reality of our compromised facility (the main site for refrigerated foods) and overtaxed staff resources, made it extremely difficult for us to consider operating a program that serves children at sites located up to 120 miles apart. However, our biggest concern was how the kids would get fed, especially in light of the financial challenges facing so many families. Thankfully we have some great local partners who have stepped up to help.Many of our local school districts did an amazing job providing meals for the children while schools were closed, including enlisting bus drivers to deliver them along the bus routes. Federal requirements that meals be consumed on site were relaxed so that parents could pick up the meals for their kids, and we’re pleased to see that those restrictions will continue for the summer as well. For the first time in many years, the Arcata and McKinleyville school districts decided they would offer a summer lunch program, and Laura Chase at Eureka City Schools was willing to serve the rest of our sites in Eureka and points south. The one remaining gap to consider was Hoopa and Willow Creek. Providing and delivering fresh, daily meals would have been too costly, so we decided to offer the children and families a weekly food box and secured funding from the North Coast Grantmaking Partnership to make it happen. One hundred boxes per week are being distributed by the Hupa Family Resource Center and Dream Quest, and we’ve contracted with local farmers in their region, who are supplementing the boxes with weekly deliveries of fresh produce, thanks to our Locally Delicious Farmer Fund.
Volunteers: Although we have a very diverse volunteer pool, retirees have always been the largest part of that cohort; and they are also in the high risk category for COVID-19. As a result, we’ve had to limit their involvement and boy do we miss them! We’ve also had to cancel the large group volunteer events and work with much smaller groups to ensure social distancing, which means our staff has had to put in extra time to fill in the gaps and prepare the food bags. Fortunately, we temporarily had assistance from CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) volunteers assigned through the Emergency Operations Center (EOC); unfortunately the EOC recently determined they could no longer volunteer for us without obtaining Safe Food Handler certification, so this assistance has come to an end for now. We’re also grateful for the assistance provided by our partners from DHHS, who stepped up to help with intake and bag prep at the Eureka Pantry and with deliveries to northeastern Humboldt. In the initial wake of the pandemic, we had hoped to access National Guard help, as other food banks around the state have been able to do, but upon contacting our local EOC we found out it would be unavailable to us so we’ve forged ahead and pieced together volunteer resources as best we can.
Nonperishable Food donations: Figuring out how to safely accept donations of food amidst concerns about how the virus is transmitted has also been tricky for us. As word of our building disaster and the food we lost spread, we received many calls from community members who wanted to donate food. At that point, we didn’t have adequate space to store donations of food, and then came COVID-19 and conflicting information about how long the virus could live on different surfaces. Food donations would typically be placed in a large bin and then sorted and packed into boxes by volunteers during one of our large, volunteer events. Since none of that was safe or feasible, we determined that it made more sense to request cash donations so that we could do bulk purchases and not have to deal with foods that had been handled multiple times; it also made it easier to store the already palletized food and eliminated the need for volunteers to sort and box it. Thanks to community support, we’ve been purchasing more food than usual to meet surging need and sharing it out across our countywide network of pantries. We have always appreciated the donations of food and hope to be able to accept them again in the not too distant future, but only when it is safe and manageable for our staff and limited volunteer pool. Some of our countywide pantries outside of Eureka have procedures in place to accept donations. To find out if a pantry in your community is accepting donations, visit our Pantry Network webpage for contact info: https://foodforpeople.org/programs/pantry-network.
Food Drives: The annual Letter Carriers’ Food Drive, which is held nationwide on the second Saturday in May, was officially cancelled this year. It is the largest food drive of the year and typically brings in 40,000+ pounds of food for our food pantries countywide. It will be missed! The Letter Carriers’ Union is exploring the idea of making a financial contribution to help offset the loss of food donations. Given the reality that this pandemic is likely to persist until a reliable vaccine is developed, we will continue to take whatever additional precautions may be necessary to keep everyone safe. We’re not sure what the holiday food drives or the other, smaller food drives that take place throughout the year will look like at this time, but we will keep you all updated as plans evolve. In the meantime, financial donations are the easiest way to help, so that we can make bulk purchases and keep our programs supplied with food.
Gleaning & fresh produce donations: We have always appreciated our partnerships with local farmers, who invite us to come and pick excess produce they have in their fields, plus leftovers from Farmers’ Markets and CSA shares that didn’t get picked up. Those relationships will continue this summer as long as they are comfortable having our staff and volunteers come to their farms; much of the gleaning takes place out in the field with folks working a good distance apart.Gleaning from backyard gardens and orchards might prove a bit trickier. We will do our best to pick from fruit trees as long as it can be done safely, and we encourage backyard gardeners to donate to a local food pantry or other hunger relief program in your community. You can check out the contact info on our website www.foodforpeople.org/programs/pantry-network for a complete list of pantry locations and distribution days/times. Since our 14th St. facility is operating with limited capacity and staff are spread amongst several locations, it is not feasible for us to have staff available at our old location to accept donations on a regular basis. If you have questions or need more information, please contact Allison Kenney, Local Food Resources Coordinator, at 707-445-3166 x312 or via email at email@example.com.
We know this is a lot to digest, and things will continue to change and evolve as we all work together to ensure the health and safety of our community. In the meantime, I want to express our heartfelt thanks for the tremendous outpouring of support that so many individuals, civic groups, businesses, and concerned community members have provided! It is truly inspiring. If you have any questions, ideas or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Email is the fastest and easiest way to reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please stay safe and be well,
Anne Holcomb, Executive Director