How Bay Area Food Banks are Coping with the Pandemic’s Hunger Crisis

By Todd Guild and Jacob Pierce

Second Harvest Food Bank Development and Marketing Officer Suzanne Willis remembers when her Watsonville-based food pantry served about 55,000 people monthly, providing them with parcels of fresh produce and pantry staples. 

This was early in 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, prompting widespread business closures in March. After that, the number climbed to approximately 88,000—an increase of 60 percent.

Part of the problem is that each winter, tourism and agricultural jobs dry up. That means families need help to feed themselves and to survive, even in a year without a pandemic.

“If you’re spending everything you have on rent and medical and gas, you don’t have the funds for food,” Willis says. “A lot of the work we’re trying to do is make sure people have access to the fresh produce, the lean proteins and the whole grains they need, but also the knowledge on how to use it.”

Other Bay Area food banks have recorded similar surges in need. The Redwood Empire Food Bank, which serves families from Sonoma County to the Oregon border, reported a 300 percent spike in demand between March and April of last year—from 10,000 to 40,000 meals per month. 

Likewise, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank now serves approximately 60,000 households each week, compared to 32,000 each week prior to the pandemic.

UC Berkeley sociology professor David Harding says that workers in tourist industries often face dueling vulnerabilities: they work in boom-or-bust economies, in areas with a high cost of living.

Harding says the pre-pandemic economy was actually pretty good at the start of 2020, in terms of markers like unemployment. But the U.S. generally has high levels of economic inequality compared to other wealthy democratic countries. So many Californians were already in a precarious spot.

“Our economy is one that, even in the best of times, many working and middle-class families are living paycheck-to-paycheck and aren’t able to prepare for a time like this when the economy goes south,” says Harding, whose research interests include poverty, inequality, urban communities, race and the criminal justice system. “If people have to shelter-at-home and businesses are closed, it doesn’t take long before people are struggling to meet their basic material needs. And we’re seeing that.”

Sure enough, Willis says that during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, Second Harvest’s numbers jumped from 30,000 people picking up food per month to 50,000, and they never went down. Then this year, staffers and volunteers watched demand soar past that level. Willis fears that a similar pattern will emerge in the wake of the pandemic—and that demand will remain high for years to come. 

Information compiled by the nonprofit Feeding America shows that 9 percent of Sonoma County residents were food insecure, defined as not having reliable access to food, in 2018. The same year, 7.4 percent of Marin County residents and 7.9 percent of Napa County residents were considered food insecure.

And according to state data, the number of households receiving CalFresh food assistance Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties climbed 26.8 percent between February and June 2020.

Needing the Way

The effect of the pandemic on food security came swiftly. In a study released this past spring, researchers at Northwestern University found that food insecurity doubled nationwide in April of 2020 and tripled for families with children. 

In subsequent analyses, the two researchers found that the troublingly high levels held steady into the summer and that Black and Hispanic children remained much more likely to be food insecure than white kids were.

In December, an analysis of Census survey data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found that approximately 27 million adults (roughly 13 percent of all adults) reported that they “sometimes or often” didn’t have enough to eat in the past seven days. In 2019, only 3.4 percent of adults said that they did not have enough to eat at some point during the past 12 months, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Willis says the struggles of hungry families are often intertwined with housing insecurity, job insecurity and all forms of social, racial and economic injustices.

“All of it ties in together, and it all has this snowball effect on a person who maybe is kind of making it, and all of a sudden you throw in a broken car or a cancer diagnosis or something; that is the kind of thing that will throw a family on the edge completely over it,” Willis says.

In general, Harding thinks it can be easy for many Americans to lose sight of what social scientists really mean when they talk about poverty. The typical definition of poverty, whether to a government agency or to an academic, is that someone’s income falls below a threshold, but what that really means is that someone doesn’t have enough money to pay for their very basic needs—food and housing. The resulting consequences can be devastating, especially as they fall on the nation’s kids. 

“They’re pretty severe,” Harding says. “If you’re thinking about children, it’s going to be influencing their social and emotional development. It’s going to be impacting their ability to apply themselves in school.” He adds that initial rounds of federal stimulus helped, but the benefits wore off.

These problems extend far and wide, including to students at the state’s public universities, despite California’s efforts to expand services.

According to a report by the University of California Office of the President, between 39 and 47 percent of student respondents from the UC system were found to be food insecure in three surveys since 2016. Those figures were a few percentage points higher than for UC Berkeley alone. 

In May, the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) conducted a survey of more than 70,000 college students and high school seniors to understand how the pandemic had affected them. The survey found that more than seven in 10 students had lost at least some of their income. 

In short, the pandemic pushed the everyday crises that many California college students face from “steady” to “extreme,” says CSU East Bay’s Darice Ingram.

Ingram coordinates the Helping Our Pioneers Excel (HOPE) program, which oversees a food pantry and assistance for struggling student renters, while responding to students in crisis. Ingram helps educate low-income students about how they may qualify for CalFresh and also helps them apply. HOPE additionally provides Instacart credits to those who don’t have enough groceries. And the program has been connecting students who moved out of the area for distance learning with resources in their regions. 

At least 30 percent of Cal State East Bay students are now food insecure, Ingram says, although she adds that the true states of hunger, poverty and homelessness can all be difficult to measure and track.

“College students just find a way to make it happen, not realizing that they’re in crisis, because they’re college students,” she says. “They’re like, ‘I gotta go to school, so I gotta make this happen. I’ll stay at my friend John’s on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, I’ll stay over here, and on Thursday, I’ll stay in my car.’ But they didn’t identify as being homeless.”

Additional reporting by Will Carruthers.

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