Roberts: Is there comfort food during uncomfortable times?
People start lining up hours before Hunger at Home distribution starts hoping to bring home fresh groceries and a nutritious meal. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

The long, winding line of vehicles could very well be interpreted in many different ways. Perhaps it is a queue of people anxiously waiting to enter a stadium parking lot to see their favorite sports teams in action? The exhaust from the cars’ pipes heat up an already hot summer afternoon. Or maybe they are just waiting to fill up their thirsty fuel tanks at a local petrol station.

No, we are in the middle of a pandemic, with millions of people out of work because very few are shopping, traveling or working. In our land of plenty, also known as America, its out-of-work citizens are desperately trying to put food on their empty dining room tables for their family.

So that long line of vehicles are people waiting for free food baskets sponsored by a local food bank. Back during the Great Depression days, the line would be literally blocks-long of hungry people standing in front of a soup kitchen. You’ve seen those sepia-looking photos of soup kitchen lines during the depression.

Today, however, the line is miles-long of people in their cars, some even luxury brands. California is certainly the world’s center of car-culture.

Here in California nearly 4.3 million people are encountering hunger, or what some call food insecurity. And, of this hungry population of Californians, one in seven children struggle with hunger.

We do have a simple way to solve childhood hunger in this country. It is called the National School Lunch Program, paid for by the federal government to make sure every child has at least one nutritional meal per day. In 2018, 4.8 billion meals were served to American children.

But a school feeding program doesn’t work if schools are closed. During this tragic pandemic, only now are some schools considering re-opening. Kids might be able to access learning through Zoom video calls from their home, but they can’t access food.

Early on during this pandemic, six long months ago (feels more like six years) a stroll through the local grocery store felt like the empty shelves had been hit hard from a run on food by a scared population worried if there would be enough food for the next few months.

The shelves and refrigerated sections for meat, produce, canned goods, toilet paper, bleach and even alcohol were bare. For those who could afford buying food, it was like everyone was preparing for a massive hurricane to hit. The hurricane was named COVID-19, carving a destructive path of unemployment, evictions and hunger.

For those of us who operate homeless shelters and food programs, Hurricane COVID shut down our volunteer feeding programs. When “shelter-in-place” was mandated for all Californians, those volunteers who typically would be arriving at our shelters at 4 p.m. each day to prepare a delicious meal for thousands of hungry people who are homeless were instead stuck at home.

The donated food they brought and their volunteer time forced us to hire kitchen workers and to pay for food ourselves. Overnight, our food bills cost us thousands of dollars. Sadly, even the agencies operating to help hungry people in need were hungry themselves for resources.

During every crisis in America, however, heroes come out of the woodwork to rescue frightened and hurting Americans. Just remember the firefighters who ran into the Twin Towers on 9/11, when everyone else were scurrying out.

Today, those heroes are the restaurant owners who even though their own restaurants were shut down because of the shelter-in-place order started to cook meals for hungry school children and their families. In our case, those heroic restaurant owners brought meals to our homeless shelters and to our supportive housing communities.

Then there were the families who, even though they were hit hard by the economic downturn, mailed Amazon care packages of food to our hungry people in need.

I also saw our housing staff patiently wait in socially-distant lines at the grocery store to buy food for formerly homeless residents who had just found their new apartments. And our outreach staff purchased food and brought it to scared and hungry people living in encampments along the river beds and parks of our cities.

This pandemic continues to ravage many people’s lives, forcing some to turn to food banks and pantries for sustenance. The future still seems insecure.

But I do know that as long as there is a crisis, there will be heroes providing comfort food for people living uncomfortable, scared and insecure lives.

San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. He also is a board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.

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