Costa Mesa has made it easier for drive through food pantries to operate in vacant parking lots across the city for the extent of the local emergency.

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The City Council voted to unanimously adopt an emergency ordinance to waive permits to repurpose parking lots left empty by stay at home orders to operate drive through food pantries and farmer markets. 

The ordinance also waives permits to allow restaurants to use parking lots for curbside or takeout service to help businesses suffering from state mandated closures.

“Many restaurants are not built to accommodate drive through services,” said Barry Curtis, Director of Development Services. “To assist restaurants during the state of emergency staffs proposing to allow restaurants to utilize these underused parking areas to provide drive through and curbside services.”

City officials say that food security has become an increasing concern due to the amount of people out of work because of the Coronavirus pandemic and that waiving permits will allow drive-through pantries to pop up in the city without having to wait for a permit.

A network of drive through food pantries have surfaced all across the county to respond to this concern. These pantries have had to increase the amount of food they hand out to address the overwhelming increase in the amount of cars that pull in to these pantries for grocery supplies.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County has operated weekly food pantries at the Honda Center in Anaheim to help people in the county hit hard financially by the virus.

“The drive through distributions are certainly an expanded format to be able to address a very real need in our community presently and I think that’s a very good thing. The caveat there though is you have to have the best food practices and health and sanitation and safety protocols in place to be able to do that properly,” said Harald Herrmann, the CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank before the vote.

City staff are requiring that food pantries implement safe practices, reasonable operating hours and leave enough parking for essential businesses that share the space.

Herrmann said that heavy traffic is a problem many drive-through pantries face and that they require a lot of open space to run.

“Traffic management alone is a very real consideration,” he said. “The next component is how is the city police department and fire Department going to help support those distribution points because there will be traffic congestion. There may be some safety concerns, and all of those different components need to be considered before food distribution comes to life.” 

Although the ordinance will waive permits for food distribution sites to use parking lots, locations for these sites will be evaluated on a case by case basis.  An assessment of a proposed location’s need for traffic assistance from the city’s police and or public service department may be required, according to city staff.

“There’s so much need right now in the community that we need to be as creative as possible when it comes to food security, and ways in which we can get food to the right places and in frankly, from the right places,” said Councilwoman Andrea Marr at Tuesday’s meeting.

A drive through food pantry will be held in the parking lot of IKEA in Costa Mesa this Thursday April 23 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. The distribution will be run by Community Action Partnership of Orange County, a non profit, in collaboration with other partners including the Power of One Foundation.

Herrmann’s advice for organizations who wish to start a drive through food pantry is to learn from others who have best practices

“We’re happy to share any of those with anyone that’s looking to open a pantry. Certainly there’s some learnings that come with that as you go,” Herrmann said.

“From a standpoint of execution, don’t reinvent the wheel.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC news intern. Contact him or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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