Most people think of the front line of the COVID-19 crisis as being hospitals and clinics. And while that is the front line for the battle against the virus, there is a second front: battling the food insecurity that the current economic instability has created. Many people across the nation, including in our backyard of the San Francisco Bay Area, are struggling to feed their families. It has made the work of food banks even more vital but also more challenging. I spoke with our nonprofit partner Paul Ash, executive director for San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, to learn how his team has quickly adapted to this new reality.
How has the current COVID-19 crisis affected your operations and clients?
Here at the Food Bank, we have seen firsthand the state of economic uncertainty many of our neighbors now find themselves in because of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, 1 in 5 San Francisco and Marin residents were at risk of hunger. Now, thousands more suddenly find themselves out of work or with reduced wages. In fact, now we are serving 20,000 more households a week than we were serving on a weekly basis before the pandemic, and our CalFresh outreach team is receiving nine to 10 times more calls.
We have also seen increased requests for home delivery from our existing clients who are over the age of 65 and need to shelter at home. We have been actively working to scale up our ability to meet that demand.
What changes have you had to make as a result of the pandemic and mandatory social distancing?
About 90 of our 275 pantries have temporarily closed for a variety of reasons – 45 of them were at school sites that closed, and many others were staffed by volunteers who are part of groups vulnerable to COVID-19. To help fill the gap, we raced to open 20 new pop-up pantries that are anywhere from 5-10 times the size of our average weekly pantry.
To accommodate social distancing at the pantries, instead of having participants walk through the pantry in the typical “farmer’s market style,” we are pre-bagging the groceries. This helps minimize waiting in line and food handling. We also remind participants and volunteers to keep six feet between one another.
In our warehouse, we’ve significantly adjusted our volunteer operations by reducing the numbers in our shifts and conducting essential projects to accommodate social distancing. This means we are purchasing more food that is pre-sorted instead of in bulk.
What advice do you have for other nonprofits struggling with the same challenges?
I would say that they need to sharpen the value proposition they offer their supporters and make a case for maintaining support, so, when we get to the other side of this emergency, the institution will be viable and able to rebuild/bounce-back.
What do you most urgently need in terms of support, and how can people help?
We continue to need volunteers in our warehouse, at our pop-up pantries and to deliver groceries to folks who are homebound. We also need donations – for every dollar donated, we are able to provide two meals for those in need.