Food banks, pantries and their team of volunteers have really stepped across Orange County since last March, feeding hundreds of thousands of people each month and delivering over tens of millions of pounds of food.

But there are questions whether the network will have the support to keep meeting the needs in the county this coming year. 

In 2019, Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County served over 249,000 people in the entire year and distributed over 29 million pounds of food. 

In 2020, the food bank served on average over 343,000 people each month and distributed over the course of the year, 42 million pounds of food, according to Second Harvest.

Volunteers pack food boxes on Nov. 19, 2020 outside Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County in Irvine.

“If you did not have your Orange County Food Bank and your Second Harvest and all the secondary agencies that are signed up to these food banks, I would say you would have civil unrest and rioting,” said Andre Roberson, Executive Director and Founder of the Power of One Foundation, one of the county’s food pantries.

“When people can’t get the basic essentials that they need and they’re not receiving any form of help and they’re left on their own to figure that out, that always is a bad recipe for need and desperation.”

Food banks and pantries are preparing to continue their efforts to feed in 2021 but the new year brings uncertainty on what’s to come as the need for food reminds high and organizations look for funds to carry on their efforts.

Many of the food banks and pantries have been making use of a U.S. Department of Agriculture program started because of the pandemic to get food. 

The program is now entering it’s fifth phase.

“In phase four, Second Harvest was not provided any of that food for most of (the) phase,” Second Harvest Food Bank CEO Harald Herrmann said. “When you look at Orange County, there are two food banks and if both those food banks are not included in the USDA food distribution something’s not quite right.”

Sunrise Produce, a local produce distribution company in Fullerton, received close to 1,450,000 boxes in phase four in a close to $50 million contract to service the whole state of California for two months.

Herrmann said at the very end of the calendar year they were able to receive a few loads of the boxes after leaving several messages and talking to multiple people at Sunrise. He added that he is not disparaging Sunrise and believes they did a good job.

“There is a phase five, we’re not holding our breath. We hope we’re going to get some of that food,” Herrmann said. “We’re lobbying to get some.”

Lisa Marquez, Executive Vice President of Sunrise, said almost one nonprofit could go through the allotment of over 1.4 million boxes alone and that the boxes were divided per county. 

“It certainly is hard to decide who will get the boxes because everybody wants to be a part of that distribution piece,” Marquez said.

She added that the Orange County Food Bank received loads of boxes every week.

“We didn’t have any boxes. I said Harald the minute I get anybody that falls out, they’re coming to you and what happened was when we went into the holidays schools shut down so they weren’t able to take those boxes so then Harald was able to pick them up,” Marquez said. 

Anna Bautista hands out boxes of food at a church in Westminster through her own nonprofit on Nov. 13, 2020.

Marquez explained that the department of agriculture is focusing on zip codes located in communities with higher poverty levels and that the department is working with the budget they have. 

“In my opinion, this program has been phenomenal. This USDA program and what our administration has provided for Americans has been so rewarding and inspiring for a lot of families that would have not otherwise had any food,” Marquez said.

Marquez said the contracts for phase five will be awarded on Jan. 19. The Department of Agriculture is buying $1.5 billion worth of food to distribute nationwide for the next phase.

Second Harvest has been buying food during the pandemic to maintain the food flow.

Prior to the pandemic, Second Harvest would purchase between 5-10% of the food they would give to their network of pantries to distribute. 

Herrmann said they’re now buying between 90-95% of the food that is going out to the pantries. 

Volunteers load pickup trucks with boxes of donations from the Second Harvest Food Bank of OC in Irvine on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

Congressman Alan Lowenthal, whose district encompasses parts of Orange County, acknowledged that the food banks and pantries don’t have the resources they need.

“In California, one in seven children struggles with hunger and there’s a 50% decrease in food supplies for food banks. The Farmers to Families program really is not sufficient even though there is money in this,” Lowenthal said.  “We’ve got to get them more money, and we got to get them increases in food supplies.”

Congressman Lou Correa told the Voice of OC that Orange County representatives are advocating for a stronger stimulus package to support the food banks and their network of pantries.

“But ultimately, I’m of the opinion that the best way to help our community when it comes to food is to open up the economy as quickly as possible safely,” Correa said. “My constituents are not looking for handouts. My constituents are hard working blue collar families that want to get back to work.”

Last week President Elect Joe Biden proposed a close $2 trillion package to address the Coronavirus pandemic as well as economic recovery. The Washington Post reported that Biden’s proposal would pour tens of billions of dollars toward food and water assistance, food stamps and U.S. Territories like Puerto Rico.

Lowenthal said there are aspects of Biden’s proposed package that may not directly fund food banks but will help address food insecurity such as an increase in minimum wage, upping unemployment benefits and increasing the amount in stimulus checks for citizens.

He added that the food banks and pantries have become dependent on private donations to get the resources they need.

“And even that is drying up,” Lowenthal said.

Herrmann said it’s hard to say if fundraising will be the biggest challenge this year and with the help from the community they never ran out of food.

“If there’s a gap, we’re hopeful that the community will help us bridge that gap and to date since COVID began, we’ve had Orange County with us and they’ve been the wind in our sails,” he said. “We’ve been able to weather some of the darkest days of sourcing challenges that have been out there because the community stepped up.”

Volunteers helped put bags of food in the trunks’ of cars at the drive through food pantry at the Honda Center on March 21.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors bolstered Orange County’s two food banks with $6 million in Coronavirus relief funding last year.

But Orange County Food Pantries like the Power of One Foundation did not see that same help with funding as the food banks from the county.

“Food banks got millions of dollars last year to purchase food,” he added. “If those food banks don’t have money they can’t do what they’re doing for us. I pay all respect to that but when you get to that second layer, that second layer needs to have funding as well,” Roberson, the nonprofit’s Executive Director said.

They need money to cover costs like renting trucks and hiring employees.

 “The truck companies are not giving you any breaks. You’re paying a good amount of money to even have two trucks in the first place, which I think the government should have worked out a deal with the truck places to even provide that service,” Roberson said.

Congressman Correa said refrigeration is a big issue for the pantries and said there are groups in the county looking to set up solar powered refrigeration centers – each costing around $70,000

“We’re trying to come up with the resources. I think government is important and nonprofits stepping up is important. This is private public partnerships that are going to make this thing work,” Correa said.

Correa added that some of his constituents in Santa Ana who need the food aren’t getting it.

“The question is what do we need to make sure that each area that needs food actually ends up having access to that food,” he said. “I see a lot of people that should be getting it that aren’t.”

Meanwhile food bank and pantry leaders don’t foresee the need for food to go down anytime soon.

“Demand is not going to go down. We’re standing on the doorstep of evictions and more job loss,” Herrmann said. “I feel like 2021 might actually be worse than 2020 when it comes to food insecurity in our community.”

Roberson from the Power of One organization agreed.

“When you look at the reality of the situation and how things have to go down, you know it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he said.

Volunteers from The Power of One Foundation direct traffic and load groceries during the drive through food pantry at Santa Ana College on April 11, 2020.

The pandemic grew Power of One from a small nonprofit to a major food distributor as they worked to meet the demand creating a greater need for money and resources. 

Last year Roberson’s nonprofit fed a million people in the first six months of the pandemic and then the three months after that they fed another million. Their efforts were possible through the donations they got as well as the partnerships they made and it landed them the 34th Senate District Nonprofit of the Year award in 2020.

Roberson said for them to continue to distribute food on the scale they did last year will take more funding and that they have been reaching out to donors since 2020.

“Money’s not going to be easy to find,” Roberson said. “There are many other nonprofits in the same position that I am.”

Roberson said Power of One needs $3 million to go through the year.

“We have to go get a building because basically we’re homeless. We did everything we did off of a borrowed building,” he said.

The nonprofit used some space at a Northgate Market and stored trucks at Magnolia Science Academy. Roberson and his partner Shawnee Witt forwent salaries to feed their community. The rest of the people distributing food were volunteers.

Congressman Correa said when he spoke to food bank leaders they told him to secure federal funding and added that’s what he’s doing. He also said it’s not only on the federal government.

“Every level of government and members of the community all have to step up and make sure that these food banks are well stocked,” Correa said.

Regardless if they get the support or not, food pantry leaders intend to continue the work as long as the pandemic persists.

“I don’t care if I got to do it out of my trunk so yeah, I don’t have no money right now but before I got here, I didn’t have no money, and I was feeding hundreds of thousands of people so that doesn’t stop me it just makes it harder for me,” Roberson said.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him or on Twitter @ElattarHosam


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