Silicon Valley food banks struggle with soaring gas prices
A Lighthouse Ministries food pantry volunteer and Pastor Ralph Olmos unload a truck in January 2022. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

The rising cost of gas is impacting Santa Clara County nonprofits and threatening food for the homeless.

Increased fuel expenses are cutting into budgets of local food pantries, including Martha’s Kitchen, Lighthouse Ministries and Loaves & Fishes. Martha’s Kitchen is facing a monthly budget increase of $5,000 due to increased fuel prices, a significant hit for the small nonprofit, said Executive Director Bill Lee.

“What scares me is we’re over $6 a gallon, and we haven’t even hit Memorial Day yet,” he told San José Spotlight. “What’s the summer going to be?”

Lee said delivering food to nine counties has become more expensive as big box trucks run on diesel, which costs almost $8 per gallon. Those 33,000-pound trucks don’t get 30 miles per gallon, it’s closer to eight miles per gallon, Lee said.

Gas prices have soared since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and added taxes and fees for environmental regulations and infrastructure repairs push California’s gas prices to the highest in the nation.

The amount of food needed has tripled from pre-pandemic levels, with more than 10,000 homeless people needing to be fed, including those living in tiny homes and hotels, Lee said. Martha’s Kitchen provides 100,000 hot meals a month and 10,000 sandwiches a week to organizations serving the homeless. About 350 people volunteer per week to cut produce, make sandwiches and sort grocery store donations.

Without an army of volunteers to help distribute the food, it would not be possible for the nonprofit to serve so many people. Unfortunately, increased gas costs mean less of their regular volunteers driving from Fremont, Hollister, Gilroy and Morgan Hill.

“We rely on volunteer labor to do the lion share of all of that,” Lee said. “Volunteers are our lifeblood.”

Lee said the nonprofit might have to reduce its deliveries if financial assistance from other entities like San Jose or Santa Clara County are unavailable.

Rising fuel prices have also affected the Lighthouse Ministries food pantry. Because many of its partners that collect excess food and goods to distribute to those in need currently can’t afford to make deliveries, Lighthouse has had to take on those routes, said Pastor Ralph Olmos.

Olmos said he is grateful for the church dipping into its reserves to fill gas tanks and enable Lighthouse to pick up food from grocery stores in Cupertino, Palo Alto and Campbell. Olmos has also seen a drop-off in volunteers. Those who used to come daily are now showing up once a week, especially volunteers driving from Hayward and Palo Alto. 

“I know it is a hardship for them,” he told San José Spotlight. “It’s difficult to be able to afford gas.”

Gisela Bushey, CEO of Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen, said increased gas prices are a growing hardship for services.

With a fleet of about a dozen vehicles, Loaves & Fishes delivers food to 109 locations throughout Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. It has paused adding new routes and locations, although its wait list continues to grow.

Bushey told San Josè Spotlight Loaves & Fishes hasn’t lost volunteers yet, but she anticipates a 40% increase in costs by the end of the year, which means having to use financial reserves not to cut services.

“It’s not a cost we anticipated to be this significant,” Bushey said. “It certainly is having an impact. Nobody anticipated the war in Ukraine or the impact it would have on global fuel prices.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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