As Orange County buckles up for limited interaction in public settings amid coronavirus concerns, grocers say there aren’t any serious supply shortages, food banks are mobilizing and calling for donations and volunteers, and public schools will continue to provide reduced price meals despite countywide closures.
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In other words:
“There is plenty of food,” said Andrea Alves, public relations manager for SGS Produce, a supplier for grocers up and down the West Coast, in a phone interview Tuesday.
She added in a statement that her specific supplier has operated since 1907, “guaranteeing food supply through two world wars, major natural disasters and 9/11.”
While SGS is seeing low stock of dry rice, beans, and potatoes, Alves said those foods should be back to normal levels in the next couple of days.
Current consumer patterns of massive overbuying are resulting in empty shelves and consumers should practice their normal shopping habits as overbuying creates a sense of panic, said Dave Heylen, communications vice president for the California Grocer Association.
“There’s no shortage of anything. That’s not the issue. There’s tons of food,” Heylen said. “The problem is that the shelves are just getting cleared too fast and it just takes time to replenish and they’re just not being able to catch up.”
Grocery stores are starting to trim back on hours of operation during start and closing times by a couple of hours to allow employees more time to restock and sanitize stores, he said.
For low-income families and seniors, one of Orange County’s largest food banks says it will need enough non-perishable food donations to fill 37 trucks over the next eight weeks in response to the local coronavirus situation and are buckling down on a “crisis plan” that involves delivering food door-to-door.
The Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County’s calculations are “a call to action” for donations, said the food bank’s account executive, Ranggin Hedayat.
The food bank on Tuesday deployed a new brigade of trucks that will provide low-income families and seniors access to food and is calling on volunteers between the ages of 18-64 years old who have mid-sized pickup trucks or larger to deliver food boxes to local pantries.
“They’ve changed their distribution model to reduce the spread of COVID-19 while still providing food for those in need by transitioning to distribute boxes of shelf-stable (non-perishable) food door-to-door,” said Hedayat on Tuesday.
There are hundreds of facilities throughout the county providing free meal and food pantry services to some of the most vulnerable populations in OC, though they’re often threatened by shaky leases, financial uncertainty and limited manpower.
“The food banks are working hard at trying to source product; we’re trying to source product,” Mike Learakos, executive director for food donation coalition Waste Not OC, previously told Voice of OC.
For anyone thinking of volunteering at one of these facilities, Learakos cautioned against merely showing up, and encouraged people to call ahead to “see if they can offer their services and we can deploy them in an appropriate way.”
Those seeking to volunteer can call any of the food pantries and meal service facilities can contact Waste Not OC directly, Learakos said.
“We are shifting our distribution model to packing and delivering individual boxes of shelf-stable (non-perishable) food to meet the needs of seniors, families and others in need,” Hedayat said to Voice of OC on Monday. “We are also focusing on increasing our inventory of (non-perishable) food above and beyond our normal supply housed at the Food Bank to meet the anticipated rise in demand as we all navigate this crisis.”
He added: “We have calculated that we will require an additional 37 truckloads of shelf-stable foods to meet need over the next 8 weeks.”
And while every public school district in Orange County closed its schools starting Monday — which could be subject to extensions based on the public health situation – they will continue to provide free or reduced price lunches to students, 18 years old and under, which will be available for pickup.
Some districts are also making breakfasts available for pick-up.
The county saw an over one percent decrease in its food insecure population between 2014 and 2016, from 10.9 percent (335,480 people) to 9.6 percent (301,650 people), according to a map of nationwide hunger created by Feeding America.
In 2016, 20 percent of the county’s food insecure population was above the poverty threshold and couldn’t qualify for food stamps or other nutritional assistance programs.
OC residents thinking about signing up for food stamps – known officially as the CalFresh program – are encouraged for the duration of the public health crisis to apply over the phone at (800) 281-9799 or online.
Voice of OC news intern Hosam Elattar contributed reporting.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.