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Pandemic, winter fuel surge in food-bank demand

Issue Date: December 22, 2021
By Christine Souza

Hunger knows no season; however, the California Association of Food Banks said demand for food increases during the winter months.

The differences this year are new challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a shortage of employees and volunteers; supply-chain issues; and rising costs. Despite the hurdles, food banks say they plan to meet food demand while bracing for an increase from people who are food insecure in the coming year.

"Food banks are mostly reporting that they are serving about twice the number of people that they served prior to the pandemic," said Lauren Lathan Reid, director of communications at the California Association of Food Banks. "It took nearly a decade after the Great Recession for hunger levels to go back to what they were prior to the Great Recession, so I think a lot of our food banks are really buckling down for that sort of trajectory."

California produces about half the nation's fruits and vegetables, yet one in five Californians, or about 8 million people, struggle with food insecurity, according to the California Association of Food Banks. Each year, through its Farm to Family program, the association works with 240 farmers, packers and brokers to procure fresh fruits and vegetables to serve its 41 member food banks statewide. The program also secures and delivers shelf-stable foods such as beans, soups, cereals and grains, as well as proteins such as eggs and meat.

Santa Cruz County farmer Dick Peixoto, owner of Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville, has donated organic vegetables to the Farm to Family program for about 10 years.

"I just really believe that a small community like this, it kind of works full circle," said Peixoto, whose farm grows 45 different varieties of vegetables. "People who are recipients are having a tough time and, if we can help them get to the next level, then that makes them valuable assets to the community. It's just (about) helping people get their feet on the ground."

Maria Houlne, who directs the Farm to Family program for the California Association of Food Banks, said she anticipates the program will distribute 206 million pounds of produce this year, a 20% increase from 168 million in 2020. The 2020 figure was a 40% increase from 2019.

"We are so grateful for farmers' continued commitment to Farm to Family. Despite all these recessionary issues, they still take care of us," said Houlne, who added that participation by farmers has increased. "They really have come and said, 'We want to work with you, but here's our situation; how can we work together to make things happen?'"

Farmers and food banks face challenges packing, shipping and transporting food, with a shortage of employees or food bank volunteers, increased operating costs and supply-chain shortages.

"We're both having material supply shortages, and the cost is very prohibitive of things such as corrugates and pallets," Houlne said, adding: "Our cost of transportation this last quarter has gone up to 20% to 25% and we expect that to be sustained, even when the holiday surge is over, at 15% to 20% going into the new year."

San Diego Food Bank interim CEO Casey Castillo said the food bank served 350,000 people per month before the pandemic. The need has since increased to 550,000 people per month.

"That number (550,000) has been constant for 12 months, so the need is great," he said. "Food banks across California and across the country think that number may come up in terms of the people we are serving during the holidays and into 2022 because of some of the new hardships placed on families."

During the height of the pandemic in 2020, Castillo said, food banks across the country saw donations of food decline, partly due to self-imposed shutdowns, but also related to supply-chain backlogs. Now, Castillo said, "inflation is at a 30-year high," meaning higher costs for food, labor, transportation, fuel and packaging.

"Last year during our fiscal year, we spent over $14 million on food. In a normal year, we would spend $1 million to $2 million," Castillo said. "This year, we're going to spend over $10 million. We're anticipating we'll spend $10 (million) to $12 million again next year."

San Diego County Food Bank, Castillo said, benefits from produce donated through the Farm to Family program, adding, "We get millions of pounds of produce through that program. The San Diego County and region has always been very supportive."

San Diego Food Bank purchased a new machine to repackage bulk product into smaller quantities. Castillo said, "(The repack machine) allows us to buy oats, rice, beans and cereal in large quantities, and then we repackage them on site. That was huge for us during COVID and allowed us to get product that we weren't able to necessarily get in package quantities."

In 2020, Castillo said the San Diego Food Bank distributed 15 million pounds of produce through the Farm to Family program and a total of 60 million pounds of food in San Diego County. Statewide during 2020, California food banks responded to a surge in demand, distributing more than 1 billion pounds of food.

Food banks benefit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture emergency food assistance program and get support to assemble food boxes for seniors and others. This year, the government provided food banks $110 million for emergency boxes and $182 million to enhance capacity.

"We are preparing to operate at this pace for the next couple years," Castillo said. "If we're going to be spending $10-12 million a year on food, then we're going to need the level of donations to continue. The San Diego community has responded. We could not have done what we have done over the past two years without them."

In addition, individual farmers, processors and others have donated food, money and volunteer hours to food banks. Through the national Harvest for All campaign, members of the California Farm Bureau Young Farmers & Ranchers program last year donated 1.21 million pounds of food, spent 8,319 hours volunteering and contributed more than $217,000 to local food banks. Last year, national YF&R programs donated 53 million pounds of food, spent 22,570 hours volunteering and contributed more than $1.5 million to food banks, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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