Food insecurity soars in Sonoma Valley
Drivers found the roundabout at Arnold Drive and Agua Caliente Road backed up in all directions on Saturday morning. Hundreds headed to Hanna Center to pick up free holiday food baskets from Friends in Sonoma Helping (FISH), trapping volunteers in the traffic.
Sonoma nonprofits are struggling to meet the need for free food around the Valley, a problem that becomes even more apparent during the holiday season.
“It was just a bottleneck from the beginning,” Sandra Piotter, executive director at FISH, said of the traffic jam. The need for baskets this year left a backup in the street so sever, highway patrol had to be called.
This was FISH’s 66th year of giving away hundreds of pounds of food, and its been conducting the event at Hanna Center for the past decade. The organization typically sees anywhere from 447 to 550 pre-registrations for the baskets, with 558 recorded this year.
“This was a very different Christmas basket distribution. In the past, we have collected canned goods,” Piotter said. “This is the first year we didn’t collect canned goods because we did a survey of people and they said they really have access to lots of canned goods and don’t use them and they really wanted more produce.”
Each recipient got a bag full of produce and a pound of cheese. Gift cards to Safeway were also given out — $100 for families and $50 for individuals.
According to Piotter, the traffic back-up made it so that many of her volunteers couldn’t get in to help with distribution. The set-up volunteers showed up early so they were OK, but since recipients began lining up for baskets around that same time, the next round of volunteers who were meant to start at 10:30 a.m. were stuck in their cars by the roundabout.
“Every year we have people who come an hour and a half early to pick up their holiday basket, Piotter said. “It’s been a bit of a problem, but I think the roundabout really put traffic in stand still.”
Coupled with fewer people carpooling and more single-person cars than previous years, the traffic jam continued through the morning.
The volunteer staff eventually got through, and were able to distribute 525 by the time that last recipient came by at 1:03 p.m.
Though they’re received higher volumes of need before (over 600 people registered for baskets in 2017 after the fires that devastated the region), this year’s demand couldn’t be fully met.
FISH was able to give out a few $25 gift cards to the people who showed up but didn’t register, because they didn’t have any more food to give.
Other organizations in the Valley are facing similar struggles with meeting the demand. The historic inflation and rising cost of food has created a larger pool of people looking for assistance, but it’s also limiting the amount that nonprofits can buy.
“There’s kind of a frenzy about it because people are really struggling,” Maite Iturri, founder of Comida Para Todos — Food for All, said. “We could give out double what were doing and we still wouldn’t be meeting the need.”
Comida Para Todos is a volunteer-run organization that originally started as a way to support the Springs community during the 2017 fires, but grew during the pandemic. They collaborate with community partners to consistently drop off food to families and people who need support, no questions asked.
According to Iturri, from March of 2020 through the spring of 2022, the organization was well-funded enough to feed about 150 to 200 households per delivery, which they did twice a month.
Since funding dropped off earlier this year, they’ve had to cut that number in half, and currently have a waitlist of around 30 people.
The organization has begun asking people who have signed up in the last two months to hold-off and signing up again in order to give other families a chance to receive the in-demand service.
“Donations are down, and people are feeling the pinch of what’s happening. We just need to be there for one another,” Iturri said.
Kathy King, executive director of Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS), has also seen a major uptick in people seeking free meals.
“In 2023, we will have been operating for 20 years and this is the highest increase we’ve seen,” King said.
In 2019, SOS served 17,000 meals over the course of the year. Last month alone, the organization gave out 5,011 meals. By the end of 2022, they will have served 60,000, up 10,000 over last year.
“I think it’s the combination of food insecurity, or prices going up in everything,” King said. “Sonoma has its issues, we have vulnerable, poor people.”
According to Piotter, the overriding factors that are continuing to impact people seasonal employees and high cost of gasoline and basic food staples.
“I think there are more people looking for some assistance because they’re caught in high inflation, and, especially now, the seasonal employees,” Piotter said. “And, an influx in new population”
Redwood Empire Food Bank, the North Bay's largest hunger relief program, has also seen demand rise to new heights with the skyrocketing costs of inflation and goods.
The holiday season adds to the pressure these organizations face as people struggle to budget for food amid the added cost of gifts and travel. Luckily, volunteering and donations also typically rise during the months of November and December.
With no end in sight when it comes to community needs, organizers are worried about keeping up as donations typically dwindle in January.
“This is the time of year we do need money for the extra food, for sure,” King said. “I think what happens is people feel generous during the holidays and then the rest of the year, you’re scrounging.“
Even with the situation at hand, and the possibility of things continuing to to worse, there’s some optimism in the food insecurity nonprofit community.
“I’ve just seen our community come together so many times,” Iturri said. “People that live in our communities in the Springs are survivors, and they always find a way to make ends meet, but it’s getting harder.”
Due to the increased need for fresh produce, meats and other perishable goods, most of the local nonprofits are looking for a cash or check donation.
Information of how to donate or volunteer can be found on the organization’s websites.
Contact the reporter Rebecca Wolff at email@example.com.