Hunger is a year-round issue. Sonoma County included. Thankfully, the Redwood Empire Food Bank has been intrepidly meeting the need since 1987. Serving Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Del Norte Counties the mission of the Redwood Empire Food bank is simple, “To end hunger in our community.” It’s a daunting task in a normal year. This year, the impacts of the ongoing pandemic and associated aftershocks have been seismic. Despite these challenges, the team at REFB is staying positive and continuing with their efforts to ensure their mission is completed this winter and beyond.
In an average year the REFB serves 82,000 people. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated shelter-in place orders that number has doubled and the years is not over. At this time last year the food bank had distributed enough groceries for 11 million meals. In comparison, in the same time frame this year, the food bank has already distributed enough groceries for 22 million meals. In the average pre-pandemic month the REFB serves 30,000 meals. In post-pandemic April that number jumped to 150,000. According to Marketing and Communications Manger Rachelle Mesheau, “It’s been intense to say the least. This is the most prolonged crisis we have ever had to deal with.” Not only did the need increase, but donations dipped as many donation sites removed their collection barrels and food donations became no touch.
Normally, REFB distribution sites are set up in a dignified marketplace style. Patrons are able to shop for the goods that they need. Currently, to keep patrons and volunteers safe, meals are pre-packaged and picked up at distribution sites by way of a drive-thru. There are over 300 distribution sites. Emergency distribution sites are also set-up where the need is deemed to be the greatest. The emergency distribution sites stay open as long as necessary, becoming permanent if the demand does not subside. The REFB also serves 171 other hunger relief and faith-based organizations that share the food banks mission. As you can imagine, that takes a lot of people power.
The REFB is now packing 1,200 meals per day with the help of community volunteers and the National Guard. In April there were 40 National Guard troops dedicated to the REFB in response to the pandemic. Right now there are ten with than number expected to drop to zero after the first of the year. After which, the REFB will be turning to community volunteers to fill the void. Volunteer numbers have fluctuated since the onset of the shelter-in-place orders. Many of the volunteers are senior citizens. Being a high-risk segment of the population many of those volunteers understandably took a leave of absence. During that time the REFB worked diligently to adopt new policies and procedures that comply with all local, state and federal guidelines. Food is now packed outside rather than in the warehouse. The number of volunteers packing food at any given time has been reduced from 150 to 50 in order to comply with CDC guidelines. Thankfully, all the measures implemented by the REFB have provided a safe and healthy environment to volunteer and the senior volunteer base has returned. Volunteer numbers dipped again during fire season. Poor air quality kept many people at home, but the REFB was able to continue packing and serving meals despite the added challenge. “We rely on the help of so many people. It’s just amazing. We have over 8,500 volunteers throughout the year who spend time with us,” Mesheau states.
The food that the REFB distributes comes from many sources. There are major food donors that include 30 corporate sponsors. However, the team at the REFB is constantly building relationships with grocers, farmers, businesses and individuals. Early on in the pandemic the government also helped out with the delivery of USDA food boxes of various commodities. With the closure of restaurants there was an excess of commodities that were channeled into the hunger relief effort. However, as restaurants began slowly coming back online there has been a reduction in the availability of the USDA food boxes with an end to the program on the horizon. “We are facing a commodity cliff. With the decrease or ending of the government commodity program we are going to need our community more than ever,” Forecasts Mesheau. Already, REFB spending has increased from $500,000 in the first five months of the pandemic to $920,000 in the last four months due to the decrease in government commodities.
This is where the community comes in. There are several programs that citizens and local businesses can participate in which can be found online at refb.org. These include hosting a drive-thru collection, or keeping donation barrels onsite at a business or organization. Food donations are always welcome. The REFB is currently looking for non-perishable items including; canned vegetables, canned meats or proteins, canned soups, peanut butter, cereal, pasta, granola bars, nuts, rice, beans and other pantry items. The REFB does distribute seasonal foods as well and they are encouraging donations of items like potatoes, hot chocolate, ciders and teas. The REFB also accepts perishable goods and produce. Please note that all perishable goods and produce need to be delivered to their Santa Rosa location for immediate refrigeration. The address is 3990 Brickway Blvd., Santa Rosa CA 95403.
Food donations are just the beginning. “We like to use a full plate philosophy,” indicates Mesheau. “People can give food, give time, or give funds. We see an increase in giving around the holidays but hunger is a year round issue. That’s something we would like to bring more awareness to.” To help fill the plate, please visit refb.org or call 707-523-7900 to get connected.