Statewide food program has fed only 1,000 people in Santa Clara County
Richard Castro sets up his food truck business "Tasty Mob" at Cambrian Park Plaza on a recent Thursday. In June, The San Jose resident brought together four local food truck businesses to safely serve meals to the public during the pandemic. Castro is frustrated that so few restaurants were selected to provide meals in the state's Great Plates Delivered program. Photo by Carina Woudenberg.

South Bay food providers are questioning why Santa Clara County has chosen only a handful of restaurants and has served so few meals to needy residents during the unprecedented pandemic.

A statewide program — Great Plates Delivered — served 66,730 meals to a little more than 1,000 residents in Santa Clara County as of July 16. The meals were prepared by just eight local restaurants.

Neighboring counties, such as San Mateo and San Francisco, worked with more restaurants and have served significantly more meals. By mid-July, San Mateo County served more than 208,000 meals to 1,875 people from 59 restaurants. San Francisco County served more than 236,000 meals to nearly 2,300 residents with 58 participating restaurants, according data the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services provided to San José Spotlight.

Alameda County prepared 29,553 meals for a little less than 400 people and worked with 49 restaurants to prepare the meals, the data show.

Santa Clara County choosing just eight local eateries for the statewide program has some restaurant owners fired up.

When restaurateur Richard Castro learned about the program in May, he was eager to sign up his new food truck venture “Tasty Mob.”

“We are true mom and pop, brother and sister, brother and brother and sister and sister small businesses that need assistance,” Castro wrote to Cal OES in a May 23 email. State officials encouraged Castro to apply on the website and contact his local program administrator.

Castro followed those instructions — but was not selected.

“I was frustrated,” said Castro, who was also denied a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the Small Business Association. “I’m angry because there’s somebody else who’s making a lot of money and here it is I’m literally starving.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom introduced the Great Plates Delivered program in late April, touting it as a way to help both needy residents and restaurants in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is contributing the majority of funding for the program with help from state and local resources.

Residents who qualify for the program in Santa Clara County receive two free meals per day, while restaurants are paid $22 for each lunch and dinner they prepare. Most of the money goes back to the restaurants while some funds the administration of the program and compensation for delivery drivers.

To qualify for the meals, county residents must be 65 or older, COVID-19 positive or at a higher risk for contracting the virus based on profession or underlying conditions. They must earn less than roughly $75,000 per year for a household of one or a little more than $100,000 for a household of two.

Restaurants must be small, independently-owned with a preference for eateries owned by women, families and minorities. They must also meet nutritional needs such as vegetarian or gluten-free options, among other requirements.

San Jose is managing the program for the county in partnership with the nonprofit World Central Kitchen. The pair formed requirements for the restaurants and World Central Kitchen chose the eight restaurants to provide the meals. Those eight restaurants are Bloom, Faultline Brewing Company, Pedro’s, Yolked, Pho Bang, Sammy G’s, Adega and Pasta Fresca.

Josh Phelps, relief operations director for World Central Kitchen, said the organization tried to include as many restaurants as it could given the low number the participants.

The group tried to distribute the contracts among the restaurants without spreading the money too thin so that the program wouldn’t be viable, he added.

“(There is) way more interest than we are able to accommodate,” Phelps said.

The program received more than 500 applications from restaurants and is not accepting anymore, he added.

Phelps said he was surprised by the high restaurant ratio in Alameda County’s numbers but speculated that the county could be running the program differently.

“Maybe the restaurants do all the meals one day?” he suggested.

City officials said it’s been difficult finding vulnerable residents who need the meals. The program must be renewed every month, which can make it more difficult to attract residents when they don’t know if the program will continue for another 30 days.

Another issue is driver fatigue. The program contracts with DoorDash to deliver the meals and delivery drivers — who are in high demand during the pandemic — are juggling other calls and sometimes delivering meals late.

San Jose officials earlier this year said the program would serve 30,000 residents countywide, a stark difference from the 1,000 people it has fed thus far.

But even if the program served more people, city officials said, it still couldn’t help all the struggling restaurants.

“We have 7,000 restaurants in Santa Clara County total,” said Jill Mariani, who works in the city’s department of transportation and manages the program. “All of them are hurting right now and even if we did everything we could and we got 30,000 participants somehow, we’re making a very, very small dent on the restaurant side.”

Mariani argues the city’s goal was to build capacity for 30,000 participants — but it never expected to reach that number, despite the fact that thousands of people are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Programs like CalFresh or Meals on Wheels are covering a decent slice of the population’s food needs, Mariani added.

Residents can apply for free meals through the Great Plates program here. The program is set to expire Aug. 9, but could be renewed for another month.

Contact Carina Woudenberg at [email protected] or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

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