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As COVID-19 cripples the economy, SLO County works to meet an unprecedented surge in food need 

When the San Luis Obispo County Food Bank makes its regular monthly trip to distribute free groceries at Baywood Elementary School in Los Osos, about 30 families typically show up to take food home.

For its April 14 distribution, the first at the school site since the coronavirus shutdown, the Food Bank planned for a higher turnout by bringing enough food to serve more than three times that number of households.

It still wasn't enough.

click to enlarge HIGH DEMAND The SLO Food Bank has seen the demand for its inventory spike nearly threefold since the coronavirus outbreak. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SLO FOOD BANK
  • Photo Courtesy Of The SLO Food Bank
  • HIGH DEMAND The SLO Food Bank has seen the demand for its inventory spike nearly threefold since the coronavirus outbreak.

That afternoon, as many as 250 cars lined up outside of Baywood Elementary—and about half went home with empty trunks as supplies ran out. The Food Bank returned the next day with more than 100 extra grocery bags to serve the unmet need, but that line of cars spoke volumes about the economic impact of COVID-19 on SLO County.

"It gives you a sense of the scale and scope of just how tragic this is for so many members of our community," said Garret Olson, COVID-19 emergency operations manager for the SLO Food Bank. "I think what we're seeing is an absolutely unprecedented need."

As the pandemic puts millions of Californians out of work—with nearly 20,000 SLO County workers filing for unemployment between mid-March and mid-April—and forces seniors and the medically fragile to stay home, people are increasingly turning to friends and family, neighbors, and community nonprofits for help putting food on the table.

From the Food Bank to food stamps, school districts to churches, homeless service groups to domestic violence shelters, a helpful neighbor to a helpful stranger on Facebook—SLO County has mobilized in a variety of ways to feed themselves and others.

"It's very overwhelming to realize the kinds of needs that are out there. And there really aren't mechanisms to help fill those fast," said SLO resident Leah Wood, founder of the HelpSLO Facebook group, which after one month as a community hub has grown to 7,000-plus members. "A lot of the traffic was people writing through the website: 'I have a car. I'm unemployed. How can I help?' ... It's really neat. It's a new way to imagine this system of helping."

And the need is off the charts. At the Food Bank, demand for its inventory from 77 agency partners throughout the county is up 252 percent in April compared to January. At its "direct distribution" sites, like Baywood Elementary in Los Osos, pickups are up 285 percent. All together, the Food Bank is projecting that more than a half-million pounds of groceries will be dispersed to the community during this month.

"When COVID struck, we had six months' worth of inventory on premise," Olson explained. "In less than three weeks, by throwing open our doors and feeding people, our six months went to seven weeks."

The Food Bank is able to continue to meet the demand, Olson said, thanks to an injection of emergency funding provided by SLO County. At COVID-19's onset, the county quickly made $650,000 available to the nonprofit to purchase food. With those funds now completely spent, the nonprofit and the county—which are working together to deliver groceries and medicine to hundreds of elderly and medically vulnerable residents—are in discussions about another round of funding.

"We don't know what the ceiling is," Olson said. "But we also recognize that on the other end of this emergency, the Food Bank still needs to be a resilient community resource."

Supplementing the larger entities like the Food Bank and the school districts are smaller community groups trying to do their part.

The Five Cities Christian Women's Food Pantry has seen its daily food program grow by as much as 50 percent during COVID-19. The 46-year-old pantry on 9th Street in Grover Beach is open weekdays for pickups by car from 2 to 3:30 p.m.

"We definitely see more people coming by, and that's good," said Marlene Jeung, a longtime pantry volunteer. "Anyone that is food insecure is welcome to drive through, no questions asked. You just have to pop your trunk."

Like many community food banks and social service groups, Jeung said the pantry had to first navigate the loss of several elderly volunteers who were forced to shelter at home due to the coronavirus. But after one Facebook post on the HelpSLO page, the nonprofit was inundated with offers for help.

"Boy, I couldn't even call everybody back, we had so many people," Jeung said. "These volunteers are just wonderful. They're very upbeat and willing to do anything I ask of them."

Throughout the county, nonprofits and faith-based groups are working quickly to mobilize and adapt their services to social-distancing requirements. In North County, Loaves and Fishes is providing outdoor grocery pickups (between 1 and 3 p.m. in Atascadero and 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. in Paso Robles).

"We've changed our procedures," said Kathleen Aragon, an Atascadero Loaves and Fishes volunteer. "In the past they had to come in for an interview. They don't have to do that anymore. They come to the door and do not enter the building."

Aragon added that the store—which serves residents of Atascadero, Templeton, Santa Margarita, Creston, and Cal Valley—has Spanish-speaking volunteers available on-site.

Other organizations that are providing opportunities for food pickups and deliveries include: Meals that Connect, Grace Church SLO, Los Osos Cares and Womenade, the El Camino Homeless Organization, Salvation Army, New Life Community Church, Nipomo Food Basket, People's Kitchen of the South County, St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Stand Strong and RISE SLO, Transitions-Mental Health Association, Meals on Wheels, Estero Bay Kindness Coalition, Shoreline Church, El Morro Church of the Nazarene, Trinity United Methodist Church, and Hope's Village SLO.

The COVID-19 crisis has also inspired startups. Gift of Grub is a small team of Los Osos residents making homemade soups in pressurized, reusable Mason jars, and delivering them free of charge to dozens of households. Cal Poly student Walter Lafky, of the local startup AgriConnect, is leveraging his connections with local farmers to deliver free produce boxes to residents in need.

All of these efforts need donations to continue. Whether it's the Food Bank or Lafky's produce project, every dollar goes a long way to keep the community fed during the pandemic.

"We anticipate it's not going to be weeks, and probably not months," said Olson of the Food Bank. "It's going to be years before the food insecurity in this county returns to what was already a tragically high level before COVID-19." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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