San Jose partners with food truck company to provide free groceries, meals to those at risk of COVID-19
Gabriela Del Real, promoter at Veggielution, packs fresh produce into grocery boxes on Oct. 22 at a site provided by San Jose Conservation Corps + Charter School. Photo by Nicholas Chan.

As the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity in Santa Clara County and across the Bay Area, nonprofit organizations, food banks and government officials are working to provide food assistance for residents, ranging from workers and business owners to older adults and people with underlying medical conditions.

Off the Grid, the Bay Area’s food truck and catering company, has partnered with the city to launch the San Jose COVID Food Relief Program. Backed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the program received $2.3 million to deliver groceries and $622,400 to provide meals to at-risk populations.

The program, which started Oct. 22, delivers free groceries including local produce, whole grains and protein and prepared meals to people affected by COVID-19. It runs through Dec. 30.

“It’s an amazing program. It’s really timely. There’s a lot of people that are negatively impacted by COVID from a food perspective,” said Suresh Khanna, chief operating officer at Off the Grid. The program supports local communities with “beautiful, organic, fresh-cut produce for people that are impacted.”

Residents in San Jose whose employment or business has been impacted by COVID-19 are eligible for the program. Those who are at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19 such as older adults 65 or older and people with certain underlying medical conditions can also qualify.

While residents who are already enrolled in a food assistance program are ineligible for the program, Off the Grid Director of Marketing Ashleigh Bilodeaux said about 70 percent of applicants have qualified for the program, with hundreds of sign-ups daily and thousands of slots left.

San Jose COVID Food Relief Program’s fresh produce. Photo by Nicholas Chan.

The majority of participants are receiving weekly groceries. In addition, Off the Grid has partnered with food vendors such as the San Jose-based food truck business the Waffle Roost to provide prepared meals for people without access to a kitchen or those who cannot prepare their own meals.

“It’s business for us and it’s doing some good for other people that can’t provide for themselves right now or are struggling to,” said Justin Funamura, owner of the Waffle Roost, which is offering Latin American and Chinese meals.

Indeed, the number of people seeking food assistance in Santa Clara County has soared since the first shelter-in-place order went into effect in March. Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, which is not involved with the San Jose COVID Food Relief Program, saw a spike of roughly 970% in the number of calls to its food connection hotline, receiving 14,000 calls in April compared to nearly 1,300 in February. While the number of calls has decreased since the peak in April, the food bank still received more than 6,000 calls in September.

“We’re serving twice as many people as we were before the pandemic — over half a million every month. And (we are) putting twice as much food out into the community,” said Tracy Weatherby, vice president of strategy and advocacy at Second Harvest. “There is a pandemic coupled with an economic crisis because of the pandemic and we don’t think that’s going to resolve anytime soon. We expect that this higher level of need is going to be long-term.”

According to the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency, the number of people in the county receiving CalFresh, the state’s food assistance program funded by the federal government, spiked by more than 20% percent to over 102,000 in September from more than 84,000 in February. The number of applicants for Calfresh has tapered but it still remains higher compared to levels before the pandemic.

Since the pandemic began, Second Harvest and partner organizations have expanded the home-delivery program, providing groceries for older adults who are unable to leave their home or find someone to pick up their groceries at Second Harvest’s food distributions sites and serving an average of 5,500 households a month.

Meanwhile, Off the Grid has teamed up with Veggielution, a community farm in San Jose’s Mayfair neighborhood and the nonprofit organization Fresh Approach to identify and partner with other local farms to provide food for participants of the San Jose COVID Food Relief Program.

One of the local farms providing fresh produce for the program is Spade & Plow in San Martin.

“We’re all Santa Clara County residents and we really make a point to have a business that feeds our community.” said Sam Thorpe, co-owner of Spade & Plow. While the number of farms in the county dwindles every year, he said their focus on providing food for local residents is critical to sustaining agriculture in the county.

As Spade & Plow navigates the COVID-19 pandemic and the approaching winter season, Thorpe said the food assistance program and other initiatives bring additional revenue for the business, giving them “a really good opportunity to continue to employ people and continue to grow more food and feed more people.”

Visit Off the Grid’s website for more information on the San Jose COVID Food Relief Program or call 408-351-8238

For Second Harvest’s food connection hotline, call 1-800-984-3663

Contact Nicholas Chan at [email protected] or follow @nicholaschanhk on Twitter.

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