Bay Area food banks struggle to meet unprecedented demand, expect insecurity to be long lasting

Bay Area food banks are seeing more hungry families and fear it's only going to get worse after the immediate coronavirus crisis.  

"There's no end to what we're about to experience," said David Goodman, CEO of the Redwood Empire Food Bank, serving Sonona County. 

"The demand for food has begun but we're nowhere near what we're expecting."

Like other food banks in the region, Redwood Empire is being assisted by the California National Guard. 

This week, 40 Guard members are packing emergency food boxes at the Santa Rosa facility. 

Each box holds enough food to make 16 meals. Normally the non-profit would put together about 1,250 of them a month. 

"The Guard packed 7,300 of these in one day, and they did the same thing yesterday and they'll do the same thing tomorrow," said Goodman.

Right now, a skeleton staff works alongside the Guard.     

Volunteers who are the backbone of any warehouse are instead sheltering at home, many of them retirees and seniors at extra risk.

"So the Guard, a bunch of young, healthy, strapping individuals have come to make sure we can get food out into our community," said Goodman.   

And when the all-clear comes for helpers to return, the need will have multiplied.   

"We are on the front line and I believe when we punch through this coronavirus, we will be considered first responders in this country from here on out."  

Before the pandemic, food banks and the pantries they supply were already feeding those whose income doesn't cover the cost of living. 

But Redwood Empire expects the demand to more than double: from 80,000 recipients to 160,000 households annually, when people try to resume their lives.     

"In all likelihood they won't have a job, their companies might not exist, so they're going to be financially insecure, which becomes food insecure, which becomes hungry," said Goodman.    

And while food lines grew after North Bay wildfires and power outages, those emergencies are dwarfed by what's ahead. 

"When we had the 2017 fire and 5,000 homes burned, we helped people for 14 months," said Goodman. 

"Now that we have an entire community at risk, we expect this to go on for many years to come." 

The Guard will be deployed in Santa Rosa, packing boxes, for 45 days unless it is called elsewhere. 

"They are a productive group," said Goodman, "working shoulder to shoulder they keep up the pace, but they're eager to help, it's why they enlisted."

Looking ahead, Goodman sees disruption to the food supply chain because farmers, manufacturers and distributors are not operating normally. 

Even though many people are financially strapped, he asks that they remember their local food bank and pick up a few extra items to donate when doing their essential grocery shopping. 

"Right now we're staring at a beach with sand that goes out for miles," he said, comparing the looming need to a disastrous tsunami. "There's this wall of water that you can barely see and that's the ocean, and that's the stage we're at with the tsunami now."