How the Coronavirus Impacts a Food Bank in Remote Northern California

6 min
Jeffry England, director of the Trinity County Food Bank, delivers items in the isolated community of Zenia in July 2017. The closest major grocery store is 100 miles away.  (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Trinity County is a mountainous, remote part of Northern California, and when I visited in 2017 for my California Foodways project, I learned that it’s also one of the state’s most food insecure places. Many people don’t know where their next meal is coming from, even in the best of times.

But the spring of 2020, with the state under prolonged shelter-at-home orders because of the coronavirus pandemic, is clearly not the best of times. What's happening now in Trinity County, where so many people are in need? I decided to check in with Jeffry England, whom I got to know during my trip three years ago. He runs the county's food bank.

The Pandemic: Food Insecurity

The morning we first met, it was just after sunrise, and Jeffry and three volunteers were almost done packing a couple of trucks. The vehicles were "loaded to the gills," as Jeffry put it, with produce, prepared foods and special boxes for seniors. He cobbles the food together from a web of local, state and federal programs and delivers it once a month to distribution centers scattered throughout the county.

I rode with him in the cab of a 20-year-old truck with a rattling refrigeration unit. He was heading out to the southern part of the county on the longest of his monthly routes: 230 miles.

Sponsored

“When I make my trip, because of all the twisty, turny roads, I kinda have to take it a little bit easy,” he told me. Hitting one of the sharp bends too fast could upend the pallets of food he’d assembled for the 10 1/2-hour drive. Out the windshield I saw vehicles that had fallen off the side of the road.

When I called Jeffry last week, he’d recently made this same run. But this time, he said, he delivered twice as much food.

“Normally we take two trucks,” he said. “This time we had to use all four of our box trucks and actually got five volunteers to load pallets on the back of their pickup trucks. So we had a convoy of nine trucks going to Hayfork and then beyond.”

The Solid Rock Church in the former logging town of Hayfork is a monthly distribution spot. Because of COVID-19, they’ve now made it a drive-through food bank, borrowing orange cones from Caltrans to create lanes. People pop their trunks or lower their tailgates, and volunteers load them up with food -- bags of non-perishables, frozen foods, produce. I remember coming to this church three years ago, and seeing about 50 people stopping by for food.

“The last time I was there, there were 113 households, so it was more than double,” Jeffry said. Much more. He says numbers are up all over the county.

“Fifty-four percent from March to April. And I anticipate even more in June,” he said. And that’s not counting the extra emergency bags he and his team have been preparing.

So far, there have been zero cases of COVID-19 in Trinity County, which has limited medical facilities and a large number of seniors and other vulnerable groups. Despite the county's reliance on visitors who come to stay in hotels and explore the area’s lakes and mountains, officials have urged even those who own second homes there to stay away until the crisis is past.

Jeffry was already overworked before the coronavirus, but getting ready for distribution this time, he says, he worked from 14 to 18 hours a day.

“The one day I took the day off, I had 70 phone calls before noon. I talked to the governor’s office in my pajamas,” he says with a tired laugh.

But he says the community has stepped up. For instance, a local foundation called to ask what the food bank needed.

"And I said, ‘I need a 40-foot cargo container and 10 feet tall, 10 feet wide, that's insulated.’ And it was here in three days,” he said.

Scores of volunteers have shown up to help, as many as 90 in a week. Jeffrey says the bank has enough food to hand out, but has encountered a problem I never considered.

“One thing we're having a real problem with is bags to pack because they have to be sterile," he said. "The grocery stores are out of bags. And we just barely made it through this month.”

Trinity County has two main towns — Weaverville, with about 3,500 people, and Hayfork, with about 2,500. Both have grocery stores and a handful of restaurants are open for takeout or delivery.

But I know from my 2017 visit just how isolated most of this county is. Back then, I rode along as Jeffry maneuvered around potholes to get to the most remote drop-off point, a tiny town called Zenia, on the border of Humboldt County.

He told me about a run a few winters ago, when he defied Caltrans workers and drove a closed, snow-covered road to deliver food to people who’d been stuck there for months.

“I said, ‘I have to go.’ I slipped, lost traction, gained traction. I just knew they needed the food so I decided to take the chance and I made it,” he said.

Lauren Turner, who came to the food drop off at the volunteer fire department in Zenia, said she was grateful for efforts like that.

“It’s not easy up here,” she said. “Usually it’s 100 miles in any direction from here to a large town where you can buy groceries” — more than a two-hour drive, one way, to Eureka or Redding.

Jeffry said that for him, the work is really personal. Many years ago, he struggled with addiction and unemployment. “It just felt so good to be able to go to a place when you’re hungry,” he said.

He remembers his first meal in a soup kitchen. “It was in a church. It was spaghetti, garlic bread and a salad. and I’m so happy to be able to turn the table and be able to help people that might have been in my shoes before.”

Sponsored

He says that right now, Trinity County is relying on him and his team at the food bank more than ever.