COVID-19 has led to widespread food insecurity in Silicon Valley. Thousands of volunteers are helping fight it.
Volunteer delivery driver Nancy Preston loads her pickup truck with pre-boxed goods from Second Harvest of Silicon Valley. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

The South Bay’s staggering increase in demand for food assistance during the coronavirus pandemic is being met with help from a newly raised army of volunteers.

Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, which has been coordinating much of the local effort to distribute food to needy residents, has faced the dual challenge of feeding more people than ever before and doing it while shelter-in-place orders were in effect. To meet the need while helping protect those in need of assistance from getting COVID-19, it started making thousands of home deliveries and established more than a hundred new sites where residents could drive up to get groceries.  

To make it all work, the nonprofit had to recruit hundreds of volunteers. Fortunately for Second Harvest and those it serves, the community answered the call.

“We could not do this work without the thousands of volunteers that help us at our facility and distribution sites,” Second Harvest CEO Leslie Bacho said. “We are just so grateful … to our volunteers who have stepped up to do this work with us.”

The amount of food Second Harvest is distributing has doubled

The California National Guard sent 140 of its members, who worked at the Second Harvest sites for weeks on end. When their numbers dwindled, Second Harvest reached out to and received support from other nonprofits. It also recruited volunteers from Nextdoor, a neighborhood social media site.

Twice a week, San Jose’s Cathedral of Faith offers free food to those in need via a drive-thru service it operates in partnership with Second Harvest. Each time the drive-thru is open, about 700 to 1,100 cars line up. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

All told, volunteers contributed 255,000 hours of service to Second Harvest in 2020, the equivalent of nearly 123 full-time employees, said Diane Baker Hayward, a spokeswoman for the organization. That was up from 222,000 hours — or the equivalent of 107 full-time employees — in 2019.

Every week, about 100 Second Harvest volunteers make deliveries across Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Another 220 volunteers are on-call to help out with deliveries as needed. Additional volunteers from Santa Clara County nonprofits Catholic Charities and Helping Hands also make deliveries for Second Harvest.

Those volunteers have been much needed. Since starting its home delivery program in April, Second Harvest has been providing food to an average of about 5,500 households in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties every month. The organization is now serving a total of 500,000 people each month, twice the amount it served pre-pandemic. Before the coronavirus crisis, Second Harvest had just three drive-thru sites in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties combined. Now it has 130.

Bacho said she has never seen this level of need and doesn’t see it decreasing anytime soon.

“We literally doubled the amount of food we were providing and the number of people we were serving in a matter of weeks,” Bacho said. “For so many people, this has been really devastating.”

Numerous organizations and hundreds of volunteers are helping out

Second Harvest has gotten help for its effort from many quarters.

Catholic Charities redirected 100 of its after-school instructors to make deliveries. By the end of March, those instructors were making 1,800 a week.

“We had the staff and Second Harvest had the food, and we made it work,” said Araceli Gonzales, Catholic Charities’ program director for disaster services.

Cathedral of Faith is making as many as 1,000 deliveries a week to seniors in San Jose and schools in the San Jose Unified and Santa Clara Unified school districts on behalf of Second Harvest. It’s making them using some 25 vans and drivers provided by Lux Bus America. San Jose companies Teen Challenge and Advance Staffing have provided volunteers to help out with Cathedral of Faith’s effort.

Team Rubicon, which pairs veterans with first responders, and Nuro, an autonomous delivery company, have also helped with home deliveries.

With so much new demand for food, Second Harvest reached out to packers and growers in California and along the West Coast and received produce by the truckload. 

And Second Harvest has turned to the internet for help, too. Before the pandemic, the organization’s team at its distribution site at Mountain View Senior Center consisted of six people, four of them seniors in their 70s. As COVID-19 started sweeping through the area and demand for deliveries increased, the senior volunteers were no longer available to help out, because they had to shelter in place.

Second Harvest recruited volunteers via Nextdoor

So Jon Thatcher, site leader at the Mountain View distribution site, put out a request for help on Nextdoor. More than 20 people stepped forward to volunteer, including Karin Porticos and her two teenaged daughters.

“I’m seeing every day on the news there are so many people struggling,” Porticos said. “Everyone needs to do something.”

Nancy Preston, who was laid off from her job in law enforcement, also volunteers as a delivery driver for the Mountain View distribution site.

“People are in dire need,” Preston said. “I wanted to do something productive and meaningful with my time. It’s extremely rewarding.”

As soon as pallets of prepacked boxes arrive from Second Harvest at the senior center, volunteers jump into action, loading their trunks with groceries. They consult distribution lists and waste no time before heading out to senior apartments.

A year ago, Thatcher’s team delivered food to 65 people. Now his volunteers deliver to 253 seniors living in low-income apartments.

The drive-thru sites have seen big lines

But just as important to food-distribution effort as the deliveries have been the new drive-thru locations. 

Second Harvest offers drive-thru services twice a month at each location. The sites are open at different times and days to accommodate as many people and their schedules as possible. Sometimes the sites will provide food for multiple households to individual cars. Because cars regularly die while in line, many distribution sites keep jumper cables and gas on hand.

“When I think about the success of us really being able to scale what we’re doing, so much of it had to do with doubling down on drive-thrus,” Bacho said.

In mid-March, Catholic Charities converted nine parish parking lots into drive-thru sites for Second Harvest. Six are still functioning and serve 600 to 1,000 families a week. By the end of September, Catholic Charities had served almost 89,000 families at its drive-thrus since they opened, Gonzales said.

Meanwhile, at Cathedral of Faith, volunteers operate its drive-thru service twice a week, filling the trunks of 700 to 1,100 cars each time with groceries.

“People are suffering. They lost their jobs and don’t know what they’re going to do,” Pastor Jim Gallagher said.

Jenny Nuyen, who lost her job due to COVID-19, said her family appreciated receiving food at Cathedral of Faith.

“Thank you for doing this for us,” she said.

Tempie Garner said receiving food at Cathedral of Faith’s drive-thru made all the difference.

“It means nutrition for my body to stay healthy. I’m so happy to get this food,” Garner said.

The situation remains challenging

While the volunteer effort has helped enormously, Second Harvest could soon face other challenges. Most notably, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which has provided 30% of Second Harvest’s groceries, ends December 31. To keep up with demand, Second Harvest will have to make up for that loss by purchasing food with its own resources, Bacho said.

In the meantime, the pandemic has exposed just how precarious life has been and continues to be for many Silicon Valley residents and how many were living from paycheck to paycheck, she said. More than half the people receiving food assistance during the pandemic were financially secure before its onset, she said.

“People are working a reduced schedule and struggling to pay their rent and bills and still afford food,” Bacho said. “There are a lot of people with so much worry about how to feed their families.”

And even with all the support Second Harvest has received, the sheer number of people it continues to serve can be overwhelming.

Volunteer Sylvia Mendez, who registers the drivers at the Cathedral of Faith drive-thru site, said the lines keep getting longer, and she’s seeing more young families and people living in their cars.

“There’s such a need,.” Mendez said. “It can really get to you.”

Contact Second Harvest’s hotline at 1-800-984-3663 or website at www.shfb.org.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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