$1.5 billion worth of food is being given out all across the U.S., courtesy of the federal government, but local food distribution leaders say Orange County residents will receive very little of that aid.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture food program, started last year, was once hailed as “a shot in the arm” by local food banks and pantry leaders in their efforts to make sure families hit hard by the pandemic didn’t have to worry where their next meal would come from.
Yet now, those same leaders are decrying shortages in the food received from the program.
Food bank and pantry leaders have been raising concerns about the amount of food boxes they’ve been getting out of the program since it’s third phase, which started in September.
The program is in its fifth round and California, with a population over 39.5 million and a state which had one of the highest poverty rates before the pandemic, is receiving less than 1.3 million boxes of food.
The government has contracted with food distributors to get the boxes to organizations that are feeding people on the ground.
A close to $28 million contract for a little over one million boxes was awarded to Daylight Foods, Inc. while a little $8 million contract for just over 280,000 boxes was awarded to L.A. Specialty Produce Co. which also goes by Vesta Foodservice, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Jin Ju Wilder, who manages the program for Vesta Foodservice, estimates Orange County will get 68,000 to 69,000 of those boxes.
“Orange County represents 8% of California’s total population and it looks like you will be getting 5% of the total boxes available in California,” Wilder said.
She also said the USDA requires equitable distribution throughout the state and that their company is basing it off where people actually reside.
“65% of the state’s population is in Southern California 35% in Northern California. So we split our boxes up that way,” Wilder said.
“Unfortunately, the majority of boxes for California, over a million, were awarded to a company in Northern California and nonprofit agencies said that they either could not get a response from them or they were informed that they would not provide distribution south of Fresno. So their boxes are not coming into Southern California at all,” she added.
Daylight Foods, Inc. and the USDA have not returned requests for comment.
“What’s happening is that 14% of the total boxes allocated to California, are making it into Southern California, which represent 65% of the state’s population,” Wilder said. “I get calls every day from people looking for boxes and I just don’t have them.”
Wilder added that she is still extremely grateful to the USDA who have contracted with Vesta Foodservice in multiple rounds of the program, saving the company as well as allowing them to help the community.
In the third round, Vesta Food Service provided Orange County with 266,000 boxes for the months of September and October. The round 5 boxes only started shipping out in late January and will conclude at the end of February, according to a text from Wilder.
In the fourth round, close to 1,450,000 boxes, valued at nearly $50 million, were sent to service the state for two months and Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County didn’t see any of that food till the very end. Vesta Food Service was not contracted in that round.
Second Harvest – one of two Orange County food banks – is buying between 90-95% of the food they’re distributing and have been helped by donations and millions of federal Coronavirus relief dollars given to them by the County of Orange.
Food pantry leaders don’t see the demand for food in the County going away anytime soon but these organizers say they’re not going away either. Community support and local partnerships have helped them carry on.
At the same time they are grateful for the boxes they are receiving from the USDA program.
Some of these organizations are in need of money to help them carry on with their efforts to meet that demand which last year had organizations feeding hundreds of thousands of people every month despite dwindling government support.
Orange County Congressmen like Alan Lowenthal have acknowledged that food banks and pantries aren’t getting the support they need.
While no member of Congress has publicly said much about food bank inequity, Some representatives like Lou Correa said they are advocating for a stronger stimulus package to support these organizations.
While the County of Orange has helped local food banks they have not boosted the pantries giving out the food who need resources too.
Food Pantries Return And Call For Support
A few of these nonprofits took a brief hiatus in January from Saturday distributions but are starting their drive through distributions back up again tomorrow.
Organizers who started the Sikh Center of Orange County Food Pantry last year in response to the pandemic are starting a service organization called the Seva Collective in Santa Ana. They plan to continue hold events with the Sikh Center throughout the year.
They will be holding a distribution tomorrow from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. or until supplies last at the Villa Fundamental School in Santa Ana. They will have food for over 1,200 families.
“During the pandemic, we’re going to continue with the food drives as we have been and then as things change, we’re going to shift to a more sustainable pantry that still services the city on a permanent basis,” said Bandana Singh, the food pantry’s leader.
Singh said they worked with the Santa Ana Unified School District to host distributions at the school for the month of February but are still looking for a more permanent site to host their distributions.
“We will actually need funds especially as we try to find a home,” Singh said. “In addition to our primary goal of procuring food because the USDA program, as far as we know at this point, it’s only going on for four more weeks but I don’t foresee the need going away in those four weeks.”
Singh said the dollar amount of the program has decreased in California and they’ve been able to secure a truckload of food and are trying to get more.
The Power of One Foundation will be handing out food at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
“Coming back here and not being that much food within the USDA program, we’ve had to secure outside sponsors that would donate extra food to us so that way we’d be able to keep up with the demand that we have for the communities that we serve,” said Power of One’s Executive Director Andre Roberson.
Roberson added that the program used to provide up to five to six truckloads worth of food and this time around they’re getting two truckloads.
Last year the organization fed 2 million people and they didn’t even have a warehouse working out of a Northgate Market. They’re holding distributions all over the county and in Los Angeles.
Power of One needs funding to address costs like refrigeration and they are still in need of a building of their own. They’re working out of Magnolia Science Academy in Santa Ana now.
“Right now we’re on a wing and a prayer hoping that funding will come in but for us we didn’t want it to stop our services so we are just using the resources that we have around us right now,” Roberson said.
Roberson said he hopes they will get the support they need and has faith it will come.
United Across Borders Foundation who have also been actively handing out food in Orange County are raising money to buy a truck to continue feeding people in need.
One thing remains clear, regardless if these organizations are able to secure the food and resources they need, they will continue feeding Orange County residents and fighting food insecurity.
“We’re not going away,” Singh said.
For anybody in need of food, pantries across Orange County are handing it out for free. For more food assistance options visit 211 OC.
Places to Donate & Distributions
Those who wish to volunteer or donate may reach out to them through the channels listed below.
Upcoming distributions include:
Saturday Feb. 6, 13, & 27 from 8 -12 p.m. at the Calvary Chapel
3800 S Fairview St., Santa Ana, CA 92704
Every Saturday in February from 8:30-11:00 a.m. or until supplies last at the Villa Fundamental School
1441 E Chestnut Ave, Santa Ana, CA 92701
714 584 7573
Every Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-10:30 a.m.
20652 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
949 497 7121
Monday from 11 a.m.-12 p.m. at SALK Elementary (Closed 2/15)
1411 Gilbert St. Anaheim, CA 92804
Tuesday Feb. 9 & 29 from 5:30 p.m to 6:30 p.m. at Calvary Church
1010 N Tustin Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92705
Wednesday & Thursday from 9-11 a.m. at the Vineyard Anaheim Church
5340 E La Palma Ave. Anaheim, CA 92807
Saturday from 9-11 a.m. at the Brookhurst Community Center
2271 Crescent Ave. Anaheim, CA 92801
Every Thursday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
First Saturday of every month 10 a.m. –12 p.m.
13280 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, CA 92840
Saturday Feb. 13 from 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Al-Ansar Mosque
1717 S Brookhurst St, Anaheim, CA 92804
If you operate a drive through food pantry in Orange County and would like our newsroom to be aware of your efforts, reach out to Hosam Elattar at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam