Food banks, crushed with more people in need, fear not having enough

Since efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus have brought the economy to a near halt, Long Beach food banks are serving more people now than ever before.

Thousands of Californians are food insecure after more than 2 million in the state have filed unemployment claims since mid-March. Federal loan programs for small businesses are tapped out and millions of Americans have been furloughed or laid off from their jobs.

“Food banks are seeing an increase of double and triple the amount of people who need their food,” said Diana Lara, executive director of Food Finders, which connects donated perishable food to nonprofit organizations and shelters throughout Southern California.

When the coronavirus pandemic was just beginning, her organization saw a dip in donations as many rushed to grocery stores and stocked up or hoarded goods. Food banks often get donations from grocery store surplus. But donations for Food Finders have since leveled out and have even increased in some areas as new sources of donations pop up, Lara said. They’ve also continued getting donations from manufacturers they had previous partnerships with.

“What we’re getting calls from are dairy farmers and produce farmers who don’t want to throw food away,” Lara said. She’s expecting a shipment of sour cream from a dairy farmer in Oregon and pallets of onions from a group that is organizing crop surplus donations.

The food from farmers would normally go to restaurants or schools, but with schools closed and most restaurants shut down or operating as take-out only, they aren’t using as much food, she said.

“Farmers don’t want to see this food going into the trash,” Lara said.

One of the partnerships they’re working on right now is with the Salvation Army Citadel Corps in Long Beach, where they will be supplying them with 200 bags of non-perishable food twice a week for seniors, Lara said.

Food Finders doesn’t distribute directly to people, but rather to food banks, non-profits and shelters who then distribute to their clients. These bulk donations from farmers and manufacturers are going to food banks like Long Beach Community Table, a non-profit that works to help food insecure people get access to healthy options in the city.

Community Table distributes food on weekends to people in parks, distributes food from their warehouse and delivers food to seniors and those with disabilities, among other events, executive director Kristen Cox said.

For her organization, donations have been unpredictable.

Before the pandemic, they would receive on average 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of food each week. Last week, they received 10,000 pounds, but this week, they received about 6,000 pounds.

Their food distributions now have “huge lines” each time as more people need help.

“Its exponential every week,” Cox said.

Her organization recently received a grant from the Long Beach Community Foundation, helping her meet the need. But she still worries about having enough food to distribute.

“All that’s helping, but this thing is going so fast, we’re just trying to hang on,” Cox said.

She worries about making it through the weekends, when they go to distribute food in the parks.

“The big question is if we’re going to be able to keep up with demand this weekend,” she said.

The concern is echoed at the AIDS Food Store, another non-profit that distributes food to those who can’t afford it right now. Some of their distribution is covered by a contract with the AIDS project of Los Angeles, but much of it must come from donations they gather themselves, said Jean Hartman, the president of the non-profit.

Every week, her group puts together about 120 bags of food to distribute, but she wishes they could do more, she said.

“Donations have increased and produce has definitely increased, but we’re still struggling to make it well-rounded,” Hartman said. “It’s not necessarily a well balanced meal that we’re able to provide, but we’re able to provide a meal.”

Before, they would only distribute to known clients, but during the pandemic, they started getting more foot traffic from the neighborhood in Central Long Beach and they were able to expand their services to more community members. Still, Hartman worries that they won’t have enough, and she’s worried about lines forming on distribution days and she’s careful to overpromise.

“Every week, I’m like: ‘Are we going to be able to pull this off next week?'” Hartman said. “Every week is a struggle.”

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Valerie Osier is a breaking news and crime reporter for the Long Beach Post. She’s a Riverside native who found her love for journalism while at community college. She graduated from the Cal State Long Beach journalism program in 2017 and covered the Palos Verdes Peninsula for the Daily Breeze prior to coming to the Post. She lives in Long Beach with her husband and two cats.
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