In summary

As the coronavirus crisis impacts the economy, the pressure on food banks have grown. I volunteer at a food bank and we need volunteers and food donations.

By Farrah Lynn Ezzeddine, Special to CalMatters

 Farrah Lynn Ezzeddine is an epidemiology masters student at the Harvard School of Public Health, ezzeddine@hsph.harvard.edu.

I pulled on my surgical gloves, readjusted my face shield and took a deep breath. Waiting in a line facing me were unmasked seniors and young people. Their primary worry is not the coronavirus pandemic. Nor is it toilet paper. It’s food.

Every Tuesday and Friday about 300 Bay Area families count on the Richmond Emergency Food Bank to provide them with a month’s supply of food. That’s 1,200 families a month. Since the coronavirus outbreak, every Tuesday and Friday may be their only chance to receive food one month.

I heard about the Richmond food bank through a senior in my community, who called to see if I would replace her and other volunteers who pack and distribute food twice a week. I signed up and assured them I could find others. But, volunteers are not as easy to find during this foreboding pandemic.

As the COVID-19 threat continues to shut down the nation, food banks are not exempt. Although allowed to remain open, about 100 food pantries have closed in the San Francisco Bay Area in the last month. The primary reason for the closures is that most of the volunteers are also those most vulnerable to the pandemic: people over 65.

On my first day at the food bank, me and two other volunteers put one carton of eggs, one canister of oatmeal, two slabs of cheese, and an unidentifiable pastry in a white plastic bag. We did this one hundred times. By my third day, the bi-weekly load of grocery store donations had dropped. No bread this time and the bananas are more black than yellow. Also the lines to receive food had grown longer. We turned down five people, one of them because they had picked up some food earlier in the month, the other four because there just wasn’t enough food to hand out.

As panic buying empties out shelves, grocery stores have less and less food to donate. Similar to most public health issues, COVID-19 is not just a threat to one’s immediate health. Like a ripple effect, it has extended its tentacles into issues of food, housing and income, as well as domestic safety and mental health. As tens of thousands of Californians experience job loss and growing financial instability during the statewide shelter-at-home orders, many will join the ranks of the unemployed, undocumented, single-parent, homeless, sick, elderly and disabled who cannot afford food.

How you can help: Check your local food bank’s website for what support it needs. If healthy and able-bodied, you could volunteer. If you have extra food, you could donate it. If you are self-isolating, donate money online, raise awareness by sharing food bank messaging on social media, and advocate for support at the federal level. 

And be mindful: the first week of every month is a critical time because WIC/SNAP benefits — food stamps — are received by low-income families. Give these families a chance to stock up. Be aware of a WIC shelf tag and try to limit purchases of those items.

After safely removing my gloves before heading home, I thought about viruses and trees. A cluster of trees acts as an ecosystem and sacrifices nutrients for sick or struggling trees in an effort to keep all of the trees healthy. Our human community is struggling in the battle against COVID-19 and, like the cluster of trees, we need to do what we can to help those in our cluster. 

As we practice social distancing in the fight against the coronavirus, let us not forget those in our community.   

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 Farrah Lynn Ezzeddine is an epidemiology masters student at the Harvard School of Public Health, ezzeddine@hsph.harvard.edu.

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