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Need for food in Sonoma Valley could last years

The need for grocery and meal assistance more than doubled when Sonoma County’s shelter-in-place took effect, but even if the order were to end today, Sonoma Valley’s food insecurity will continue for some time, likely for years, said Dave Goodman of Redwood Empire Food Bank.

“This, in all likelihood, could go on for five years,” Goodman said.

Steeped in disaster relief examples, Goodman relates the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects to Sonoma County’s fires and power outages caused by PG&E’s PSPS (Public Safety Power Shutoff) program.

The 2017 Sonoma Complex fires burned for about two weeks displacing thousands of people during that time, escalating the need for food assistance. But the need for food didn’t end when people were allowed back home, Goodman said. They were helping people for 14 months.

The pandemic and its effects on job and income loss could go on for maybe five years, he said.

“Redwood Empire Food Bank is Sonoma Valley’s food bank,” said Mayor Logan Harvey who has been volunteering regularly at a food distribution site in the Valley.

The City of Sonoma is playing a “support role to Redwood Empire Food Bank,” said Lisa Janson, special events coordinator for the city.

Janson said the city ensures “they have the supplies and volunteers they need to continue to serve” the community. It also supplies things such as cones for marking driving paths, barricades, A-frames and other signage to assist with traffic flow and public safety at some of the distribution sites.

“And when they need volunteers we work closely with Sonoma Volunteers and other community organizations to ensure they have the volunteer resources they need,” Janson said.

The additional distribution site, now at Hanna Boys Center, is serving 450 families every Friday, Harvey said. Additional sites were first being operated at Flowery and El Verano elementary schools, but caused traffic jams and was moved to Hanna for safety.

“Redwood Empire Food Bank has been serving Sonoma Valley for years. Since the 2017 fires they have maintained 10 to 13 food distributions a month here in Sonoma Valley. And since the pandemic began in March they have increased the amount of food coming into Sonoma Valley to match the need of our community,” Janson said. “They are our biggest provider of Groceries to Go and Produce Pantry in Sonoma Valley.”

The food bank has several different programs and ways it collects or purchases food and donations, but it essentially is concerned with providing food to those who are in need.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’ve never met anybody who has the same story,” Goodman said.

The path to food insecurity is different for everybody, he said.

When people come in for food he likes to sit down and talk with them and ask, “What brought you here today?”

One man might say he was in Vietnam in 1969 and has fallen on tough times, while the woman at the other end of the table is a stay-at-home mother of three and her husband just left her. And then there are “life’s unforeseen disasters,” such as the coronavirus pandemic.

People are getting laid off and furloughed, there are those who live on a cash basis off of tips they earn as a server in a restaurant. Or there is the person caring for an elderly, ill parent.

“This is a very expensive place to live. Making ends meet here is difficult,” Goodman said.

Those who use the food bank may be the person whose last check is already spent, or the person who has “a bit of savings,” and “four shelves of food.” But when that runs out, they have to turn to the food bank.

In disaster times, that’s when they see the person who has never used a food bank.

“If you asked them, ‘are you poor?’ they would say ‘no.’ They live within their means, but their means are meager,” Goodman said. And those are the people who don’t get public assistance, but now they need it.

“It’s not like the bills have stopped,” he said. They still have a car payment, rent and television to pay for.

“They weren’t decadent, they were just living,” Goodman said.

And then come the bill collectors, and the only place people have “flex” room in spending is health care and food, he said.

There has been an outpouring of generosity during each disaster, including this pandemic, but Goodman said that wears off after a while.

“It’s not compassion fatigue. People just move on,” he said.

Goodman said he hopes that society will start to see food banks as “first responders.” Typically food banks consider themselves “second responders,” he said, but this time is different.

“I’m hoping that hunger, the issue of hunger and food insecurity and food banks will forever be seen as first responders,” he said adding that people need food, air and water to live.

“If you call 9-1-1 because you can’t breathe,” someone will come to your rescue. “But if you run out of food and call 9-1-1, nobody is coming,” Goodman said.

“They are in a panic just like when you run out of air. You don’t know how you’re going to feed your family.”

Redwood Empire Food Bank operates in the counties of Sonoma, Lake, Humboldt, Mendocino and Del Norte. There are several different locations in Sonoma Valley where residents can get fully prepared meals or groceries, the most recent drive-through distribution for groceries is located at Hanna Boys Center, 17000 Arnold Drive, every Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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