Bay Area Rallies to Ensure Seniors Don't Go Hungry During Coronavirus Pandemic

4 min
Health Trust Meals on Wheels program CEO Michelle Lew and Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez deliver a couple of meals to a San Jose couple sheltering in place. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

With senior citizens in the Bay Area directed to shelter in place and otherwise steer clear of coronavirus vectors, this huge population of more than 878,000 people (according to the 2010 U.S. Census) is suddenly deluged with offers of help from family, neighbors and non-profits.

Look Up Local Food Banks That Need Your Help

Elisabeth Seaman of Mountain View is a great-grandmother, but she’s not typically in need of help getting things done. "That’s for sure. I’m much more used to helping other people than to getting help."

The professional mediator and author can still pull produce from the communal garden in her cohousing community. But finally, when yet another friend offered to shop for her, she relented and said yes.

"She couldn’t do it all in one day, but she went to Safeway on Monday, and Trader Joe’s. Of course, she couldn’t find everything, but what she could find she got!" Seaman said.

On hyperlocal newsgroups, email chains and Twitter threads across the region, people who don’t personally know a senior — or anyone medically vulnerable — are putting out word they want to help. Jon Davis, a junior at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, is looking.

Eagle Scout Jon Davis, a Senior Patrol Leader for Troop 204 in Lafayette, is making himself available to shop for seniors local to him who need food or hardware supplies over the next few weeks.
Eagle Scout Jon Davis, a Senior Patrol Leader for Troop 204 in Lafayette, is making himself available to shop for seniors local to him who need food or hardware supplies over the next few weeks. (Courtesy of Jon Davis)

So far, just one couple has signed on for his shopping service. He’ll be procuring critical crisis survival items like ice cream and hand sanitizer. The 17 year-old from Lafayette is hopeful more people will say yes to his offer; and just to be clear: he’s NOT doing this to add to his massive collection of merit badges. "I have grandparents, and I know that they don't want to leave the house right now, and I thought some of my neighbors might be in the same situation," he said

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He might consider volunteering at a Bay Area food bank. Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, for instance, works with more than 300 different partners to provide food for more than a quarter of a million people every month at a thousand distribution sites in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties.

"This crisis is challenging for all of us, but for people who are living paycheck to paycheck, this becomes a time of even more anxiety," says CEO Leslie Bacco.

She adds, "We are serving more and more working families. We are serving more and more seniors. More and more folks who are really struggling to live here on a fixed income. But now that so many people are going to see their wages cut, are going to see their hours cut, are going to potentially be losing their jobs, we are anticipating see a huge increase in the people who need our services."

But just as the non profit food delivery system ramps up to address the Covid-19 crisis, there’s been a sudden drop in volunteers. Legions of seniors who used to help package and deliver food are now sheltering in place. The Health Trust Meals on Wheels program in San Jose, which usually serves 500 individuals a week, anticipates needing to deliver meals to 1,000 people next week. How they will do that is an open question.

Second Harvest Silicon Valley CEO Leslie Bacco speaks at a press conference March 18, 2020 announcing a new initiative to, among other things, alleviate food insecurity during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Second Harvest Silicon Valley CEO Leslie Bacco speaks at a press conference March 18, 2020 announcing a new initiative to, among other things, alleviate food insecurity during the Coronavirus pandemic. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

"On a pre-Covid day, we usually have 36 drivers," says CEO Michelle Lew. "About half of our drivers have had to drop out. They are retired folks, and they themselves need to self isolate. So we are scrambling to find more drivers, as well as generate cash donations to buy the meals for people in need."

Programs like this one are also hiring. "We have a lot of restaurants and other places that are now letting staff go, and so, I frankly think the needs are gonna get greater. There’s an incredible opportunity for people who are looking for both work and to help in a meaningful way," says Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez.

San Jose is also developing a countywide food distribution plan in partnership with Santa Clara County, non-profits and the private sector. The city is encouraging volunteers to sign up at its web site Silicon Valley Strong.

"At a time like this, when so many are struggling, we need to do more to ensure that all in our community have access to food through this crisis," Mayor Sam Liccardo said at the press conference announcing the partnership.

Silicon Valley tech titans like Facebook, Cisco and Apple have already contributed large sums to various organizations around the Bay Area, as well as to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation to distribute to groups focused on food stability.

Facebook, for example, has donated roughly $700,000 in cash and food  to local senior centers, schools, food pantries. John Tenanes, Facebook's Vice President of Global Facilities and Real Estate, says, "The current COVID-19 situation has impacted people everywhere, including many of our neighbors, and we're committed to help them weather this storm."

Going stir crazy at home? Consider getting involved yourself.