A volunteer prepares produce for distribution at a community food bank in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, July 18, 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic. - Food insecurity is a growing issue in the United States as the COVID-19 positive rates spike upward. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)
The Bay Area has lost close to 350,000 jobs during the past year as of September, according to the state Economic Development Department.
That means across the region, more and more people are finding they can't purchase the food they need — a situation also known as food insecurity. For many individuals and families, food banks offer a crucial health lifeline in providing food free of charge.
Across the Bay Area, food banks are racing to keep up with increased demand for food — and for volunteers. Read on for the facts about food banks, how things have changed during the pandemic, how to find a food bank near you and what you can do to help.
Second Harvest of Silicon Valley has "literally doubled the amount of food we're distributing," said CEO Leslie Bacho, in an interview with KQED Forum.
Demand was already high due to widespread food insecurity in Silicon Valley. "We already serving a quarter million people. Now we're serving a half million people," Bacho said.
A housing crisis, continuing gentrification and high cost of living means the Bay Area is particularly vulnerable, but what's happening here is being felt nationwide. Researchers at Northwestern University have estimated that food insecurity has more than doubled in the U.S. as a result of the economic crisis from COVID-19, affecting up to 23% of households earlier this year.
Many folks using food banks in the Bay Area are coming to them for the first time, Bacho said. This is a testament to how the pandemic-induced economic crisis is disproportionately impacting low-wage workers.
"We are seeing so many people who are already just living on the edge, having to then burn through their savings," Bacho said. "More than half the people we're serving now have never sought food assistance before."
Food Insecurity's Impacts Are Unequal
As NPR has reported, Black and Hispanic Americans are disproportionately affected by the food insecurity that drives the need for food banks.
According to 2019 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over 19% of Black households and over 15% of Hispanic households experienced food insecurity in 2019. In that same period, white Americans fell below the national average of about 10%, with less than 8% experiencing food insecurity.
In addition, adults who have a disability — especially those who are not in the workforce — also experience more than twice the rate of food insecurity as adults who do not have a disability, NPR reports.
Food Banks are Finding New Ways to Serve — and Overcome Stigma
As part of its drive to meet soaring demand, Second Harvest has established 130 new drive-thru sites in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties for people to get the food they need. Bacho said these sites have "really been critical during this time to be able to distribute the food safely and easily, and that "many of these drive-thrus are serving a thousand people at a time." Bacho stresses that not having a car isn't a barrier to picking up food at these sites, and people can still access the services on foot.
Media visibility of food banks has helped places like Second Harvest reach those who need assistance, but Bacho also thinks the drive-thru facilities are encouraging folks who might otherwise feel uncomfortable visiting a food bank to take advantage of the service. When people don't have to leave their car, "it's very anonymous, it's very convenient," Bacho said, predicting that even post-pandemic, "we will probably continue to see a lot of these drive-thrus, just because I do think that helps reduce the stigma."
How Can You Help Your Local Food Bank?
Donate Your Time
If you don't need the services of a food bank right now, and you have time to spare, you might consider volunteering at a local food bank.
Right now, many food banks specifically need more volunteers to help box up food. A lot of the commodities coming into food banks are pre-boxed, explains Bacho, and having to then box all the food again, ready for recipients who need it, takes a lot of human power.
"We were already very dependent on volunteers," at Second Harvest, Bacho said, "but especially at this time, we really need volunteers helping us box up food in a warehouse, and then helping us at these distribution sites."
During the pandemic, food banks are taking extra precautions to reduce this risks of their volunteers contracting — or spreading — COVID-19.
In-person volunteers should expect rules on wearing face coverings and gloves, and maintaining social distance.
The Second Harvest food bank is laying firm emphasis on extra sanitation methods, Bacho said, and has overnight deep cleaning in place to keep surfaces sanitized, in addition to its "strong air filtration system" in the facility. They are also screening volunteers for coronavirus symptoms "constantly," Bacho said.
If you're nervous about volunteering in person during the pandemic, speak with someone at the food bank you're thinking of supporting and ask them about their COVID-19 safety procedures. Bear in mind that there may be restrictions on folks deemed to be in certain high-risk categories around volunteering — for example, Second Harvest says that at this time, they "do not recommend that seniors (65+) or anyone with a chronic health condition volunteer."
Donating Money Might Be Better Than Donating Food
The pandemic has changed the way many food banks solicit and accept food donations, due to the risks of spreading COVID-19. You won't see as many food drive collection barrels in stores — if any — this holiday season, "we really want to stress financial donations," Bacho said.
Donating money rather than food gives food banks far more flexibility, Bacho explains. About a third of the food Bacho's food bank distributes is purchased, not donated. Second Harvest is able to negotiate special deals for the food it buys "by the truckload" — at a "much better value than you could get if you went to Costco or Safeway," Bacho said. Put simply, food banks know how to make your cash go a long way when it comes to buying food — and almost certainly further than you'd be able to if you buy food yourself.
If you've previously donated food directly to a local food bank, and are set on doing so again, remember that they may have changed the way they accept these donations because of COVID-19. Second Harvest, for example, is no longer accepting walk-in food donations to adhere to their safety and social distancing policies, and explicitly asks that you donate funds instead.
How to Sign Up to Help
The quickest way to offer your support is by visiting your local food bank's website and signing up there to volunteer or make a donation.
Other smaller food banks and community fridges may be operating in your area. Some food banks can also offer advice and assistance with applying for food benefits such as CalFresh (also known as food stamps).