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Sonoma shores up food distribution

Getting free food to those economically struggling as a result of the coronavirus crisis is a foremost concern, resulting in increased food distribution sites and a rising need for financial contributions and volunteers. The Redwood Empire Food Bank, which will continue to provide groceries to existing food-distribution nonprofits throughout the Valley, is expected to start additional food giveaways at Flowery and El Verano elementary schools, possibly as soon as Monday.

The best way to find updates on where to get free food is to go to the food bank’s website at getfood.refb.org. “I know you want us to be able to lock it down, but the schedule changes, especially with the current challenges,” said David Goodman, CEO of the food bank. “As soon as we know we post it.”

Friends in Sonoma Helping (FISH) saw an immediate increase in demand when the sheltering-in-place order took effect. “The food is flying off the shelves,” Sandy Piotter, its longtime executive director, said.

A group of public and nonprofit representatives have formed the Sonoma Valley Food Security Task Force, led by Sonoma Mayor Logan Harvey. Its goal is to increase funding for nonprofits that provide food and to identify younger volunteers to deliver and work at pick-up locations. The Valley’s current volunteer force is largely over 65 and at high risk.

“We are going to have a massive increase in the food insecure,” Harvey said. “We need people under 50 to step up and help and for those who can afford it to donate.”

The task force has set up two websites, sonomacity.org/food-security, which identifies nonprofits in need of donations, and sonomavalleyvolunteers.org, which provides links to volunteer opportunities.

The task force is working closely with the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which has long delivered food to FISH, La Luz, Vintage House, Sonoma Overnight Support and other nonprofits. The current distribution schedules will be amped up as need arises, according to Harvey.

FISH saw an increase of about 15 people a day requesting food last week and Piotter expects that number to rise. “We have already instituted major changes to the ways we receive, transport and distribute food,” she said. It now distributes food through a drive-up system, with clients staying in their car while food is placed directly in the trunk. It is also exercising social distancing in the food storage and packing room and had a new sink was installed for hand washing.

“We are abiding by all new safety recommendations while still providing services,” added Piotter. The clothes donation and distribution room has been closed indefinitely, but the organization is preparing to meet increased need for its rental-assistance program. She said many volunteers work inside helping people on the phone, and can continue volunteering while sheltering-in-place. FISH may need more volunteers going forward, but has to prepare to provide training. For now, its current volunteers are keeping up with increased demand.

Piotter said the best way to immediately help is by financial donation. “We have been doing this for 49 years and I feel we will be able to rise to the challenge and provide of the needs of the community,” she said. “People in this organization are so committed to service.”

In addition to the onsite distribution, the nonprofit delivers food on the first Wednesday of every month.

Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group started distributing free drive-up meals to those in need at the General’s Daughter weekdays, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., on a first come, first served basis.

Last week the Community Foundation of Sonoma County made “emergency grants” of $25,000 to FISH, La Luz and Sonoma Overnight Support and a $15,000 grant to the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center.

Harvey stressed that the food distribution programs are for everyone, including Sonomans who may never have needed help in the past. “We want to help people be able to pay their rent by taking their food expense away. Don’t be shy. Come get a bag of food,” he said.

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