Free meals in San Jose lose pandemic relief funding
From left, Benjamin Ortega talks to his kids Vayda, Micah and Aria while they eat a Thanksgiving themed meal from nonprofit Loaves and fishes at the Vietnamese Seventh Day Adventist Church parking lot. Photo by Joseph Geha.

Funding for food insecurity programs in San Jose has been severely cut, after losing COVID-19-era dollars.

Martha’s Kitchen and Loaves and Fishes Family Kitchen — two of San Jose’s largest food distributors serving tens of thousands of meals to residents each week — are being forced to rollback services, after millions in pandemic relief grants were not renewed in the city’s 2023-24 budget.  Significant cuts have already affected interim housing sites, food kitchens and recovery centers, despite a reported increase in demand.

Gisela Bushey, senior advisor and former CEO of Loaves and Fishes, told San José Spotlight the nonprofit saw skyrocketing need within six weeks of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The nonprofit went from serving 547,000 meals a year at 70 sites to more than 1.5 million at 164 locations across Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

“Things very quickly spun out of control in terms of the need,” Bushey said. “If COVID has done anything for us, it has revealed in a very visible, concrete way just how precarious things are for folks in Silicon Valley.”

The city helped by giving millions in COVID-relief money to food distributors like Loaves and Fishes. But Bushey said San Jose support steadily declined after the first year, and city funds have now gone from $7 million supporting 11 nonprofits to zero as of July, with little warning. For Loaves and Fishes, that’s translated to a 30%  budget hit and 10,000 weekly meals the nonprofit can no longer provide.

“The need continues to increase and we have to try and find ways to keep pace,” Bushey told San José Spotlight. “The rest of the (funding) pie, which (comes from) the foundations, the corporations and individuals … not one of them has reduced their levels of funding. Only the city of San Jose has done that.”

A city spokesperson told San José Spotlight funding for food distribution prior to the pandemic was the responsibility of county and state governments. They said local food distributors were given notice from the city well in advance that one-time COVID-relief funds would end and that organizations would need to plan accordingly.

Food insecurity has worsened in Silicon Valley over the last few years. Roughly 155,000 residents received help last year from CalFresh, also known as the California Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to the 2023 Silicon Valley Pain Index—a report that focuses on racial discrimination and wealth inequality. More than 16,800 residents have received free food in the last year from a market hosted at Mexican Heritage Plaza—and local food bank Second Harvest of Silicon Valley is serving more than 500,000 residents every month.

Bushey said as of July 1 the county—which has been funneling COVID-relief dollars through the city for food distribution—has filled about 20% of the funding lost from the city cuts.

“Come next July, we have to start all over again … the funding starts at zero,” Bushey said, adding this is not a sustainable or consistent approach.

Martha’s Kitchen, which also feeds thousands of residents weekly, lost about half of its funds when the city ended its allocation, said Martha’s Kitchen Executive Director Bill Lee.

Lee said the demand for food is still increasing. Housed people still need to eat, he said, and interim housing service providers are still largely expecting free meals from food distributors.

“It’s kind of horrible, leaving us to play God to decide who gets served and who doesn’t,” Lee told San José Spotlight. “We’re having to take funds that are intended for the region and funnel them just to the city of San Jose, which is where the bulk of our services (are).”

Lee said if the city and the county don’t revisit funding options, there won’t be enough food distributions for people living on the streets in San Jose.

A spokesperson for the City Manager’s Office said the city funded food distribution through local nonprofits for over 240 million meals through December 2022 as the county focused on the pandemic. They said all food distributors were notified in late 2022 that their federal funding would be ending.

Other city programs are still in effect, the spokesperson said, including food resources through senior nutrition programs, scholarships to childcare and youth programs and housing support services.

“We look forward to the county’s leadership in this effort,” the City Manager’s Office spokesperson said.

David Lott, CEO of Loaves and Fishes, told San José Spotlight he’s going to have to make additional service cuts in January if funding doesn’t improve and San Jose is going to be hit the hardest.

“At present, 68% of our services (are in) San Jose proper. It’s kind of unfair,” Lott said. “However, in January, we’re going to have to reassess whether or not we can (continue that support).”

Contact Ben at [email protected] or follow @B1rwin on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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