Food pantries rally to help those made food insecure by COVID-19

In order to maintain social distancing, many food banks are handing out prepackaged containers of food.

Sarah Palmer takes delivery of frisée lettuce from Geoff Palla from the Edible Schoolyard for the Berkeley Food Network. Photo: Pete Rosos

Isalia Guerrero never expected to have trouble putting food on the table.

As a house cleaner with a steady clientèle, a husband who worked 60 hours a week, and two of her three children holding part-time jobs, the family always had plenty to eat.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the order of Guerrero’s life — and led her to experience food insecurity for the first time. Guerrero’s clients asked her to stop cleaning, as they felt it was no longer safe to have her in their homes. Two of her three children lost their part-time jobs and returned home following the closure of their schools. And her husband, who works as a technician in San Rafael, had his working hours reduced from 12 hours a day to five.

“For me, it’s a little bit … what can I say? A little bit frustrating because I have to feed everybody,” said Guerrero, a Berkeley resident.

Nearly one out of every five people in Berkeley is food insecure, according to the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business.


Guerrero and her family are the latest to join the 24,000 people in Berkeley who are food insecure. That’s nearly one out of every five people, according to a report by the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. Roughly 96% of them are housed, with 4% unhoused.

Food banks and pantries around the East Bay are seeing an upsurge in the number of clients they serve and are working fast to adapt to their new reality.

“Our helpline call volume peaked at over 300 calls in a day last week,” said Michael Altfest, the communications director of the Alameda County Community Food Bank (ACCFB). This is an eightfold increase in the course of two weeks, he said. “More than half of those are first-time callers to our helpline and we’ve seen an increase in seniors reaching out for help.”

ACCFB has moved into an emergency response mode and is focused on the core emergency functions of getting resources in and out of the door, said Altfest. The food bank is sending out pre-packaged emergency food bags, each weighing about 15 pounds, full of shelf-stable items like pasta and sauce, whole grains (for example, rice), canned protein (such as tuna), canned fruits and vegetables. “Now that we have the process honed, we’re able to produce over 3,000 bags a day,” said Altfest

In the last couple of weeks, ACCFB has received plenty of support from the community, local athletes and professional sports teams. The Oakland As pledged $100,000 to the food bank and the Warrior star Steph Curry, and his wife Ayesha, donated funds from their Eat. Play. Learn Foundation to help feed the 18,000 kids who normally rely on the Oakland Unified School District for two meals a day. Their gift, and their explanation on social media about food insecurity, resulted in a significant number of donations from people who had never donated to the food bank before, said Altfest.

“And it’s important to note that it’s not just us – they wanted to make sure their fans knew to donate to their own Feeding America food bank.”

The Berkeley Food Network (BFN) has registered the highest number of clients in its history of operation in the last week, said Sara Webber, BFN’s director. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the network would distribute food to about 500 households a week. That number leaped 180% in the last two weeks to roughly 1,400 households, she said. With a projected average of three members per household, the network fed around 4,200 residents. (Disclosure: This reporter has worked and volunteered for the Berkeley Food Network in the past.)

“We saw increasing use of our pantry as the week went on,” said Webber. “People are starting to feel worried about how they will get food.”

Anthony Grajeda and Alex Aquirre loading groceries in their vehicle after visiting the Berkeley Food Pantry before the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Tony Hicks

Her views are echoed by Dharma Galang, the director of the Berkeley Food Pantry, who says that 50% of those they helped are new. “We have doubled the households we are serving,” she said. “We have not seen numbers like this since the Great Recession.”

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the majority of the volunteers at the Berkeley Food Network were older. Most of them are now staying at home, but other residents have stepped up, said Webber. Typically, BFN has about 20 volunteers, but they currently have 135 volunteers working to ensure processes run seamlessly.

“Current volunteers are much younger, mostly people who are now working from home, parents whose children are home from school and young adults [that are] home from high school and college,” said Webber.

For most pantries, the increase in numbers of clients and volunteers during the COVID-19 situation poses operational challenges. The food pantries have had to adjust their operations to safeguard the well-being of both clients and staff.

Berkeley Food Pantry has adopted a “grab and go” model, where people set up appointment times on selected days to pick up their pre-packaged grocery bags. Similarly, the Basic Needs Center, a hub at UC Berkeley for those grappling with food insecurity, as well as the UC Berkeley Food Pantry, have closed their doors. Students are encouraged to sign up in advance to pick up their weekly pre-packed grocery bags from one of three or four locations around campus.

Henry, a volunteer at Berkeley Food Network waits to fill a shopper’s order in front of two large boxes containing emergency food bags. Photo: Pete Rosos

“Our internal operations team is now at a satellite location, but if there’s someone with an immediate need, we can give them a bag of groceries,” said Natalia Semeraro, the food manager for Basic Needs.

Berkeley Food Network is no longer allowing clients into its pantry. Instead, staff members read out the list of available food items to the clients as they wait outside. Once they select their food preferences, a volunteer “shops” on their behalf. The network packs the food in its own bags and then drops it at a collection spot outside where the client can pick it. The process ensures that there is no physical contact between the parties.

This, however, has brought with it a new challenge — pantries need to figure out where to source the bags and how to meet that extra cost. This is in addition to the cost of protective gear, including gloves soap, masks and hand sanitizer, items they can no longer do without.

To effectively traverse the COVID-19 period and its aftermath, the heads of pantries are urging community members to check in with them for opportunities to volunteer. More importantly, they need continued donations to help sustain their efforts to fight hunger in what they fear could be a “prolonged emergency” period.

“Long term, I do not know what to expect from my employees or the food supply chain,” said Bonnie Christensen, the director of nutrition at Berkeley Unified School District “We will continue to do our work until we cannot.”