Like firefighters and other emergency responders, Bay Area food banks practice responding to earthquakes, fires and other natural disasters. So when a firestorm swept through Wine Country in early October, displacing thousands of families, the Redwood Empire Food Bank knew what to do.
The Santa Rosa food bank called its counterparts in the nine Bay Area counties and asked for help, setting a mutual aid plan in motion that sent trucks full of food to the disaster zone.
Days after the Tubbs Fire obliterated hundreds of homes in Santa Rosa, the Redwood Empire Food Bank had set up drive-through distribution centers. There, volunteers handed out groceries in an operation that resembled a NASCAR pit stop more than a food pantry, said David Goodman, chief executive of the food bank.
They served 85 families every hour.
“It was pretty intense up here,” he said.
In the wake of the fires, the food bank distributed enough groceries to make 1.7 million meals — far more than the typical million meals at that time of year.
“There are all these people out there right now struggling to get it together, get their lives back together, they’re financially insecure and what follows financial insecurity is food insecurity,” Goodman said, recalling the weeks after the fires broke out.
To help fill that need, food banks from across the region pitched in, sending volunteers and food to the disaster zone.
“They immediately started moving larger quantities of food,” said Paul Ash, executive director of the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.
First shipments to Sonoma and neighboring counties included granola bars, fruit and other snacks to accommodate people who had no where to cook, followed by easy-to-prepare staples like microwaveable instant soup, Ash said.
For many families, it was the first time they’d ever had to ask for food, Goodman said.
“They actually had shame,” he said. “There’s something about coming for food, even though you just fled your home in the middle of the night.”
Yet that’s exactly why the food banks will always be there, he added.
“Our job,” Goodman said, “is to restore dignity, in addition to provide food.”
Yet the food banks do it largely without government help. The Redwood Empire Food Bank received no public disaster funds to help feed those in need after the firestorm, Goodman said.
“The cavalry is not coming,” he said. “We are, in fact, the cavalry.”
Instead, most of the funding comes from private citizens and businesses.
That includes donations from the Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund, which has supported food banks in the nine Bay Area counties, contributing more than $20 million over the past 31 years.
The fund is one of the largest food bank supporters in the Bay Area. Last year, it donated $1.1 million to the food banks, the equivalent of 2.2 million meals.
Whether the economy is on an upswing or a downturn, and especially in the wake of disasters, hunger is a constant in the Bay Area, Ash said.
The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank serves 225,000 individuals each year, providing families with nearly 30 pounds of food weekly at its 250 food pantries, which offer fresh produce and other food in a farmer’s market setting.
Yet there is still a waiting list for a weekly spot, Ash said, a need that seems incongruous to the visible wealth in San Francisco and Marin counties.
“The numbers don’t lie,” Ash said. “One in four people live near or below the poverty line.”
To help ease demand, the Season of Sharing Fund donates 15 percent of the fund’s annual proceeds to the Bay Area food banks. The rest is provided to individuals throughout the region who have urgent needs — a month of rent, tires for a car, furniture or money for medical expenses. They are identified through community and social service agencies.
While the demand for food has declined since the first weeks after the October firestorm, there are still hundreds of families trying to stitch their lives back together who will find themselves showing up for groceries at the food pantry, Goodman said.
“They’ve got to get clothes, a new place to live with first and last months’ rent, they have to get a car, they have to put down a deposit on their car,” he said. “We know that there will be new faces that are here as a result of the fire for months down the road.
“People up here are saying it will go on for years.”
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