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Orange County health officials are on a mission to get a majority of residents vaccinated at various sites set up across the county by July Fourth.

But even if they are successful, food bank leaders say that the need for food in the county — a crisis exacerbated by coronavirus induced shutdowns — will still very much be around.

“There are vaccination sites coming. There’s optimism in the air but there’s still a second reality. There’s a lot of people still really hurting out there,” Harald Herrmann, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, said in a phone interview.

“We still have a crisis on our hands.”

A line forms for a neighborhood food pantry in Huntington Beach on Aug. 12, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Mark Lowry, director of the Orange County Food Bank, said the roll out of vaccines has bred a false sense of normalcy.

“It’s not over yet. COVID isn’t over yet. Unemployment is not over yet. Financial hardship is not over it. Food insecurity is not over yet and food banks like ours continue to need a heightened level of support,” he said.

Lowry said it’s been almost a year since people first heard about an increased need for food and hopes people will still hear that message as loudly and as clearly as they did back then.

People still owe money on rent that was curtailed during the pandemic, as well as energy costs. Over $1 billion is owed to the state’s various utility providers, according to the California Public Utilities commission.

“Just because people’s income went down because they were unemployed doesn’t mean that their expenses went down. And those expenses month after month for the last 12 months pile up,” Lowry said.

The food bank director said this is not an issue that will disappear overnight.

“Many families in Orange County and the nation are going to be dealing with the financial devastation of COVID for some time to come,” Lowry said.

The Struggle to Source Food 

During the pandemic, food banks have had to rely more heavily on purchasing the food they distribute. Donations have made this possible but those money sources are drying up.

At the same time the need for food is not.

Lowry said his organization has distributed 8.4 million pounds of food in December. 

“This was not normal before COVID. This was not normal during COVID. There was no month in our 40-plus year history where we distributed this much food,” Lowry said.

In January, Orange County Food Bank distributed 3.4 million pounds of food.

“Did the needs of vulnerable families in Orange County decrease by more than 50% from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1 in Orange County? No. We just had less than half as much food, so we’re helping less than half as many people and that’s not about the need. That’s about the resources that we’ve got available today to address that need,” Lowry said.

Volunteers from The Power of One Foundation carry boxes of food during their drive through food pantry at Santa Ana College on April 11, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Herrmann, Second Harvest’s CEO, said the current flow of food per month out of their non-profit is twice what it was prior to the pandemic.

“At the beginning of the year, we had planned to spend about $980,000 on food for fiscal ‘20,” Herrmann said. “By the time we close out fiscal 22, we are probably going to spend about $7.2 million dollars on food.”

Second Harvest has had to buy a majority of its food since the pandemic and so has the Orange County Food Bank. 

“In the absence of our traditional sources of donated food, our only remaining alternative was to buy food,” Lowry said.

[Read: Orange County Food Banks And Pantries Could Struggle To Keep Pace with 2021]

Lowry added the food banks were able to do that throughout 2020 with the help of community members sending in checks ranging from $25-$50 to tens of thousands of dollars to even $100,000 to support their efforts.

The government also chipped in.

[Read: Orange County Supervisors Could Bolster OC Food Banks With Millions of Federal Dollar]

Orange County CEO Frank Kim told the press last week that federal coronavirus relief money has been completely exhausted.

“We’ve not received any additional direct allocation of funding so we have used our support funds that we received from the state and the federal government,” Kim said.

Volunteers pack food boxes on Nov. 19, 2020 outside Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County in Irvine. Some volunteers are from the Anaheim Ducks organization. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

A U.S. Department of Agriculture food program, started last year, is also helping local food banks and pantry leaders in their efforts to make sure families hit hard by the pandemic don’t have to worry where their next meal comes from.

The county’s food bank leaders have hailed the program as a “godsend” but said the amount of food they’re getting from it has gone down as it has evolved in phases and are calling for a more equitable distribution of those food boxes.

“As USDA tapered off, we offset the loss with purchases. If we lost one or two truckloads of USDA produce, we would buy a truck load or two because the demand is still there,” Herrmann said.

[Read: Pantries Revamp Operations to Feed Residents as Less Federal Food Boxes Are Sent to Orange County]

“Were it not for that program, we would have assisted half as many people as we did last year,” Lowry told the Voice of OC.

Herrmann said the program has shifted the mindset of the produce industry to realize there is a new channel of revenue for them: food banks.

Second Harvest pays $10 for a 22-25 pound box of produce and is prioritizing purchasing nutritious food.

“What these providers are doing is they’re providing us this food at a very discounted rate, so it’s an additional opportunity to keep farmers and growers and distributors busy,” Herrmann said. “There’s actually a silver lining for us on the other side and that’s maybe a more curated and direct relationship with growers that we didn’t have before.”

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 the various pantries through the channels listed below.

Upcoming distributions include:

Power of One Foundation

March 13, 20, & 27 from 8 a.m.-noon at the Calvary Chapel

3800 S Fairview St., Santa Ana, CA 92704

March 17 & 24 from 8 a.m.-noon at Magnolia Science Academy

2840 W. 1st St., Santa Ana, CA 92703

March 18 & 25 from 9 a.m.-noon 

941 S Trident St., #1 Anaheim, CA

March 19 & 26 from 9 a.m. until supplies are gone

7026 Main St., Westminster, CA 92683

Sikh Center of Orange County Food Pantry // Seva Collective

Every Saturday in March and April 3 from 8:30-11 a.m. or until supplies last at the Villa Fundamental School 

1441 E Chestnut Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92701

714 584 7573

Laguna Food Pantry 

Every Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-10:30 a.m.

20652 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

949 497 7121

Vineyard Anaheim Church

Mondays from 11 a.m.-noon at SALK Elementary 

1411 Gilbert St., Anaheim, CA 92804

March 30 from 5:30 p.m to 6:30 p.m. at Calvary Church

1010 N Tustin Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92705

Wednesdays & Thursdays from 9-11 a.m. at the Vineyard Anaheim Church 

5340 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, CA 92807 

Saturdays from 9-11 a.m. at the Brookhurst Community Center 

2271 Crescent Ave., Anaheim, CA 92801

Christ Cathedral

Every Thursday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

First Saturday of every month 10 a.m.-noon

13280 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, CA 92840

Uplift Charity

Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon 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 helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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

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