Empty Stomachs

Farmworkers wait in a long line to receive groceries from the United Farm Workers office in Salinas; the UFW began distributing food at the start of the pandemic.

Tired after working an eight-hour shift in the fields under hot sun or cold rain is how many farmworkers feel when they get to the United Farm Workers office in Salinas to pick up free groceries. The UFW has been distributing food since the pandemic started. At the beginning the lines weren’t too long; now, the line goes around the block, from East Gabilan Street all the way to East Alisal.

Pandemic or no pandemic, winter is a hard time for farmworkers, which is the off season for Salinas Valley growers. Workers may drive 45 to 60 minutes to work in grape fields, adding the cost of a longer commute to their expenses and further depleting their earnings.

According to United Way Monterey County, calls regarding food availability to the nonprofit’s 211 assistance line more than tripled in 2020. From March to December, there were 3,024 calls requesting food pantry information, compared to 843 in 2019.

After a bump at the beginning, “it slowed a little bit but we are still getting quite a lot of requests for food,” says Katy Castagna, CEO of United Way Monterey County. She thinks the decrease is due to people now knowing where to go to obtain food.

Many organizations both established and new, including the UFW, Food Bank for Monterey County, Meals on Wheels and ALL IN Monterey, have been distributing food on a regular basis in Monterey County, some since well before the pandemic. But they report that need has increased alongside record unemployment.

The Food Bank for Monterey County quadrupled its services back in March of 2020, depleting six months’ worth of inventory in seven weeks, and the need has remained the same since then. “We continue to have large-scale distributions that run out of food,” says Melissa Kendrick, the Food Bank’s executive director.

The nonprofit is now helping about 60,000 families per month at more than 50 food distribution sites countywide, each providing food to between 600 and 800 families. Some distribution sites target specific populations, such as hospitality workers, seniors and farmworkers.

“We’re seeing people in our line who we’ve never seen before,” Kendrick says.

Since the pandemic started, Food Bank staff and volunteers have distributed 24 million pounds of food.

Meanwhile, food donations have plummeted. Non-perishables are down nearly 60 percent and fresh produce between 60 to 80 percent, leaving the nonprofit to purchase more food. Amid the surge in demand, the Food Bank went to the county Board of Supervisors in June seeking additional funding, projecting a needed $3.4 million for six months. The supervisors allocated $1.25 million last year in several increments, from CARES Act funds and cannabis revenue.

Schools have also remained a food distribution hub throughout the pandemic, thanks to a decision early in the shutdown by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow kids to get school meals, even if they themselves are not present. That enabled parents and guardians to pick up meals.

In the coming weeks, the Food Bank will formally launch a delivery service to bring groceries to the doorsteps of people who are Covid-positive and are currently isolating.

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