The pandemic pushed Orange County’s food banks to distribute more food than ever before following the economic fallout shutdowns and people staying home caused.
“I’ve been here 33 years and nothing comes close to what we saw during the past nearly 12 months now, in terms of needs in the community,” said Mark Lowry, director of the Orange County Food Bank in an interview earlier this month.
Scores of residents were laid off and incomes disappeared, leaving many people worrying about where their next meal would come from.
Food insecurity was already an issue for many county residents before the pandemic, but the increase in the need for food during a time when people were asked to stay home forced pantries to adapt to new safety protocols and up their efforts last year.
“Hunger, food insecurity, food banks, food, pantries, food bags and boxes existed pre-COVID, so there was always a need and we all know that that need increased substantially during COVID,” Lowry said.
Food bank and pantry leaders like Lowry say that even if health officials get a majority of residents vaccinated by the summer, the need for food will still be around.
For Lowry, the past year has shown the resiliency of food banks and pantries which had to change the way they operated almost overnight to respond to the pandemic.
“We had to reinvent every aspect of our operation,” he said. “We had to find new ways to deliver food.”
“What did we and our partners do? We promoted this drive-thru food distribution model that we saw on the news every night in communities all across the country.”
The Drive-Thru Food Pantry
Starting in March last year, Second Harvest Food Bank distributed food to thousands of people at the Honda Center for months, before shifting gears to help support their network of pantries.
Long lines of cars formed outside their first distribution – spilling into the streets – as people waited hours for food. Second Harvest then restructured operations to bring down the wait times.
Harald Herrmann, the food bank’s CEO, wrote about what he saw at their first drive through distribution.
“I was blown away by the scale of this event. Where are all these people coming from?” He wrote. “It is in that moment that I realized we’re only at the beginning of real crisis, and it’s not just COVID-19, it’s a potential crisis of hunger.”
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.
Those numbers skyrocketed when the pandemic hit.
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.
It wasn’t just Second Harvest.
Pantries have been utilizing drive-thru distributions to hand out food all over the county since March — many multiple times a week. Volunteers risked getting infected to make sure their communities were fed.
One of those pantries is the Vineyard Anaheim Church.
Lambert Lo, who oversees community outreach at the church, said they’ve partnered with Second Harvest for decades and helped start mobile pantries.
“During COVID every pantry right now is mobile. That was our church coming alongside Second Harvest and starting that program for them decades ago,” Lo said in an interview.
The church has served over 6.5 million meals throughout the pandemic and over 350,000 people throughout the pandemic. They’ve also made nearly 13,000 grocery deliveries to seniors who couldn’t leave their home.
“I’ve traveled the world quite a few times and I’ve seen poverty and hunger at extreme levels, but in Orange County, I’ve never seen a need like this,” Lo said.
He added the pandemic brought more awareness to the underlying food insecurity issues.
“The pandemic has added extra stress and agitation to families that are already in poverty and food insecurity so yes, this is new on one level, but poverty has not been new,” Lo said.
He added that their efforts have been made possible through grants, the city and the church’s congregation.
“The generosity of our congregation has opened the door for exponential growth — 10 times what we were doing,” Lo said.
He doesn’t see food drives going away soon and said the church will be around to meet that need. They are adapting their pantry and hoping to partner with other organizations to offer resources to the people they serve.
“We want to get to the underlying issues, we want to get to root causes — the food is a symptom of something else,” Lo said.
Someone Cares Soup Kitchen has been serving people in Costa Mesa for decades.
Merle Hatleberg started the kitchen in 1986.
Now her granddaughter, Shannon Santos, is the executive director of the nonprofit looking to feed homeless people, seniors, children as well as people who are mentally or physically challenged.
Santos said it was a huge learning curve for a lot of nonprofits to adapt to the pandemic.
Many volunteers at the beginning of the pandemic started to back out.
“The folks that did end up staying — I often call them our backbone volunteers because they’re the volunteers that are here rain and shine and they stuck with us, but it was a very challenging time at best getting those beginning months,” Santos said.
The nonprofit transitioned to “To Go” services in May, allowing people to pick up hot meals and some groceries.
Their efforts have been supported by Trader Joe’s, where the soup kitchen sources the food they use to prepare their meals as well as getting food from the Power of One Foundation and Second Harvest.
Power of One fed 2 million people in the first 9 months of the pandemic and inspired the soup kitchen to make their own food boxes and give them to people in the community.
“That was a big challenge on people having transportation,” Santos said. “We’re actually going out to the source where the people are directly in need and distributing into our own neighbors.”
Santos and Adam Ereth, the nonprofits’ program director, put Coronavirus protocols together at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Nobody’s gotten sick,” Santos said. “We’re tough on that. We’ve been able to get through a very, very unique time as a result of that.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam