Turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and cranberry sauce – staple Thanksgiving dishes that many families throughout Orange County will struggle to get this year. 

That’s because food demand remains high – due to a combination of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation, which is steadily increasing food prices. 

With Thanksgiving kicking off the holiday season, local food banks are wrestling with funding shortfalls and continued high demand from residents. Some have shifted to buying food for residents since the start of the pandemic to meet demand.

But food pantries and food banks, with help from volunteers and donations, have not faltered in their mission to help ensure residents can put meals on the table. Many distributions organized by local food pantries and sponsored by elected officials have been giving residents food for Thanksgiving before the holiday. 

And tomorrow at the Honda Center in Anaheim a free Thanksgiving meal hosted by We Give Thanks will be served to any resident who wants one from 11 a.m to 2 p.m.

While there have always been residents in need of food in Orange County, the need skyrocketed to unprecedented levels during the height of the pandemic throwing local food banks and pantries to the front lines and forcing them to adapt.

“Not since the Great Depression a 100 years ago had America seen food lines like that,” said Mark Lowry, director of the OC Food Bank – one of two food banks in the county, in a Thursday phone interview.

People looking to donate to or volunteer with local organizations like Second Harvest Food Bank, the OC Food Bank or the Seva Collective can do so at the links provided here. 

For food assistance options, visit 211 OC.

Inflation Drives Food Bank Demand 

Now with some people recovering from the financial impact of COVID, food banks are facing another economic hurdle with little rest in between.

“At exactly the same time, the financial impacts of COVID started to subside for many of us, inflation came to a 40 year high,” Lowry said. “To kind of aggravate the matter further, the cost of food has crept higher than the inflationary cost of other consumer goods.”

Lowry said he has seen it first hand when he goes to the grocery store.

His food bank is now serving on average a little over 300,000 people each month – about 16% higher than the amount of people they served pre-pandemic.

Claudia Keller, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank – the other food bank serving Orange County, echoed his remarks in a Wednesday phone interview.

“We have seen food insecurity and the need for food come down, but it is still elevated relative to 2019,” she said.

Keller said for the months of July-September their food bank has fed on average 351,000 people per month.

In September alone, they served 387,000 individuals.

“That’s the highest it’s been in a while,” Keller said. “We all know that coming out of COVID the economy recovered but not the way we thought it would. A lot of folks went back to work. But we are experiencing inflation. The cost of food is high, the cost of gas is high, the cost of rent is high.” 

Seva Collective Volunteers pack up food before their distribution on Nov. 19, 2022. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

In 2019, about a quarter of a million people in OC were considered food insecure – a number that includes people who may have only needed temporary help, according to Keller.

“It is amazing to me that a quarter of a million people before the pandemic and a 100,000 more – 350,000 – today are food insecure in one of the richest counties, in one of the wealthiest states and arguably the richest nation on earth,” she said.

“There’s something there that is just not right.”

By Summer 2020, the Second Harvest food bank was serving 650,000 residents in a county of roughly 3.2  million.

In March 2020, Second Harvest adapted to new safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID and started a weekly drive through food distribution at the Honda Center which ran through June 2020 to meet the need in the community.

Smaller Food Pantries Step Up 

Pantries across Orange County also adopted the drive-thru model to meet increased demand. 

The Seva Collective, which started out as the Sikh Center of Orange County Food Pantry, has been on the ground for the past two and a half years. Most recently, they held a distribution for Thanksgiving this past Saturday in Santa Ana.

Bandana Singh, the pantry’s leader, said at the height of the pandemic they were serving over a thousand families every week and back then they anticipated that by now they would be serving 200 families every week.

“We’re doing about 500-600 families still at every food drive and as inflation goes up and as affordability goes down, we are seeing the numbers slowly creeping back up because the cost of everything is getting so expensive,” she said in a phone interview.

“We’re seeing people who’ve never had to ask for help before.”

While they get food from the OC food bank, Singh’s organization also buys food – a trend that has become more common.

Since the pandemic, food banks had to rely more heavily on purchasing the food they distribute rather than donations.

“Food banks were not intended to purchase. They were intended to recover food,” Lowry said. “In fact, I’ve been around long enough that you used to be a pariah in the food banking world, if you purchase food.”

Times have changed.

“Out of necessity, food banks have transitioned to having to buy some food. That’s very, very costly. It costs a lot less to go pick up donated food than it does to purchase food,” Lowry said.

In 2020, efforts to buy food were supported by community donations and even financial support from the government, including at least $6 million in COVID relief funding.

“The county was generous during the pandemic; they provided us funding, which is from an efficiency and an economic perspective, the greatest thing that anyone can do for a food bank or a food pantry because we can buy food a lot less expensive than individuals can,” Keller said.

By early 2021, food bank leaders warned that financial support was decreasing as a sense of normalcy returned with the rollout of the COVID vaccine.

[Read: OC Food Bank Leaders Warn The Need For Food is Not Going Away Anytime Soon]

But even then, Second Harvest served around half million people on average per month in fiscal year 2021, according to their website.

Food Banks Wrestle With Funding Shortfalls 

Volunteers load up food bags into a car at the Seva Collective’s food distribution on Nov. 19, 2022 in Santa Ana. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

Keller said government funding, private funding and individual funding has all decreased, despite the continued high demand.

Lowry said state money has rolled in to support their efforts. 

The money is being used to buy produce grown in California and to invest in the food bank’s infrastructure, purchasing things like trucks, refrigerators and freezers. 

Keller notes that it was through the generosity of Orange County residents that they have been able to operate the way they did amid the pandemic.

“The generosity of the people of Orange County is breathtaking and how they came to support this food bank during the pandemic,” Keller said.

“And how they continue to support us today is really imperative for the health and the well being of our entire county.” 

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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