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Bay Area Food Banks, Feeding More People Than Ever, Face Lack of Volunteers

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A woman with white hair and a warm coat picks through a huge box of ears of corn in a paved outdoor area where lots of other people are also circulating.
Volunteers distribute food items at a San Francisco-Marin Food Bank pop-up pantry in the Richmond District of San Francisco on June 13, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Inflation, a shortage of volunteers and a lack of funding have led to a crisis for Bay Area food banks — organizations that were already under heavy strain due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rachelle Mesheau, marketing and communications manager at the Redwood Empire Food Bank, said that she’s seeing more daily participation now than at the height of the pandemic.

“At the current pace, we will serve more people this year than at any point in our 36-year history. It is costing us more to serve our participants due to price increases in food and gas, and we are having to buy more food to meet the demand,” she said. “On top of that, donations are down, which is adding fuel to the fire. It’s a challenging time for food banks.”

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Diane Baker Hayward, director of communications at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, told KQED the number of people being served at its location is also back to peak pandemic levels.

At the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, it’s a different story. Pre-pandemic, the organization served an average of 32,000 households a week. That number rose to 55,000 households — a 72% increase.

A woman with gray hair wearing a black face mask holds out cauliflower heads as a man using a can walks past in a paved outdoor area.
Volunteers distribute food items at a San Francisco-Marin Food Bank pop-up pantry in the Richmond District of San Francisco on June 13, 2023. Volunteers at the food distribution events often help set up, build grocery bags, distribute food, check in participants, manage the line and help with other tasks as needed. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

During the pandemic, people using CalFresh (also known as food stamps) received a minimum “emergency allotment” of $95 a month. That federal funding ended in April, meaning that many lower-income Californians experienced a big reduction in their benefits. (If you were one of them, take a look at our guide to other ways to find food assistance and funds.)

Keely Hopkins, senior communications manager at the SF-Marin Food Bank, said it’s still too early to know whether the end of the CalFresh allotments is the reason for the increased need. She noted, however, that anecdotal evidence from food bank workers points to a rise in people visiting the food bank weekly — as opposed to a previous trend of people visiting monthly once their benefits run out.

How to support your local food bank

Donate your time

The food banks KQED spoke to all pointed to a need for volunteers. While many weekend food bank shifts get taken quickly, other important shifts throughout the week remain unfilled.

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What if your work schedule prevents you from taking on many shifts during the week? Cody Jang, associate director of community engagement at the SF-Marin Food Bank, said that for prospective volunteers who are only available during the weekends, there are still ways to make a big impact. These include volunteering to make food bank home deliveries, which have a slightly more flexible schedule. Jang also encourages people to get their workplaces and co-workers involved in a group volunteer shift during those time slots during the work week.

Donate your money

Last winter, KQED spoke to Michael Altfest, community engagement and marketing director at the Alameda County Community Food Bank, who said that 60% of its funding comes from the holiday season. He explained, however, that “hunger is a 365-day-a-year problem,” and that food banks still need full support throughout the year.

Hayward of Second Harvest of Silicon Valley said that financial donations are down 30% since the peak of the pandemic, while food and fuel costs have increased significantly.

Stacked brown cardboard boxes of cauliflower and sweet potatoes in a paved outdoor area.
Boxes of vegetables await distribution at a San Francisco-Marin Food Bank pop-up pantry. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Donate food

During the holidays, when food banks historically receive the most support, KQED reported that food banks had a greater need for funds than food — that’s still the case.

However, food donations are still welcome. Said Mesheau, “While we still need food donations, monetary support goes much further — for every $1 we receive, we’re able to provide $3 worth of food. Because of our buying power, a monetary donation will provide more food.”

Check before you donate that the food bank doesn’t still have COVID precautions in place around food donations, which prevented many organizations from accepting food donations at the height of the pandemic.

If it’s your first time, here’s what to expect

Jang emphasized that every shift is different, but generally volunteers who are ready to work hard and come with an open mind have positive experiences that deepen their relationship to their local communities. He’s seen friendships form from groups that started meeting up through the pandemic.

“If you’re at all curious, just try it out,” he said. “And we oftentimes, we think that once you get started, it becomes part of your weekly routine, and we love to see that.”

Find a food bank near you to support — or use — in our 2022 guide.

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