Despite COVID-19 vaccines and restrictions lifting, the need for food and supplies still great

By Raiza Giorgi

What volunteers thought would be just a few weeks of hardship has now surpassed the one-year mark as people are still struggling to make ends meet during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“I was worried the first week that no one would come after we got a lot of donations in food,” said Elizabeth Breen, volunteer at Bethania Lutheran Church’s weekly food distribution.  “Boy, was I ever wrong, and week after week, we are seeing a majority of the same families and others who are barely getting by. COVID aside, there is such a great need here for assistance and we will continue to make this happen even after all the restrictions are lifted.” 

Each Tuesday, dozens of volunteers, some affiliated and some not affiliated with Bethania Lutheran Church, are there rain or shine to distribute food and other necessities like diapers, wipes, sanitary napkins and hope. 

Sometimes the line has wrapped twice around the church’s building and stretched down another street of people waiting to get food and supplies. 

Juan, whose last name is withheld, started coming to Bethania with his wife and 1-month old daughter, and they have come almost every week when the restaurant he works at isn’t shut down. 

“I don’t know where we would be without Bethania and all these wonderful people helping us,” Juan said. “Luckily we live with family otherwise we would have probably had to move out of the area.” 

From the first week, Bethania has served 64,407 individuals with an average of 320 households per week, according to volunteer Linda Marzullo. 

Marzullo keeps track of all the numbers as they are required by several of the food distributors to tally and make sure they get enough to go around. 

“The majority of the people coming are usually from the hospitality industry and there are some that are houseless and mostly from the valley,” she said. “We do get some folks from Lompoc and field workers from Santa Maria.”

The highest number of households served was in week 19, with 413. 

The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County released their one-year stats recently with 19,549,119 pounds of food distributed in the county from March 9, 2020, through March 8, 2021. The previous year, the foodbank distributed 9,708,944 pounds of food. 

“A larger portion than usual of the total food we distributed was provided to community members in south county,” wrote Judith Smith-Meyer, communications manager for the Foodbank. “Normally north county receives 75 percent of the total food distributed in the county. During the past year, 37 percent of the food we provided to the community was distributed in south county.” 

See the list of places that are available to people in the county for food pick up. 

“We get a lot of people who pick up for other families that do not have transportation or are quarantined themselves. You would think that since there are vaccinations now they would start to go down, but they haven’t,” Breen said. “The need was here even before COVID, especially with the housing and rental market being so high here, people are barely scraping by.” 

Volunteers prepare bags of food to give to families in need at Bethania Lutheran Church. Photo by Raiza Giorgi

The average rent in Santa Barbara County is $1,660 according to the Department of Numbers, and the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Solvang is $1,800, according to Houses are going for anywhere between $3,000 to $5,000 depending on the area of the valley and how much land. 

“The rental market is absolutely going up, and I think as a community we need to take a serious look at affordable housing and the lack of it here in the valley,” Breen said. 

Breen said they are in constant contact with People Helping People and the Small Business Administration and other resources to help people battling not just food insecurity but unemployment and navigating getting loans and grants. 

“People are just told they have to go online, but many people do not know how to navigate government websites or ability to get online because the library was shut down for a time and access to computers was not available,” Breen said. 

Breen said that even though people are struggling and having to come every Tuesday for food, she is glad to see them and many have become friendly with the church volunteers and friends. 

“We get to also celebrate milestones with people, we had a small celebration for a little girl who just turned 6 and we gave her a few presents and a treat,” Breen said. 

There are more than 60 volunteers now working two shifts to get all the bags put together in the morning and then those who hand them out in the afternoon. There is a line for walk-up and a drive-thru line. Students from Santa Ynez Valley Union High School’s AVID program also come each week to volunteer and help with distribution. 

The food is given to Bethania each week from a variety of sources such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, Veggie Rescue and the church spends roughly $2,000 a week from donations to supplement with canned meats and other products like diapers, wipes, toilet paper, paper towels and laundry detergent. 

The church also is home to the Solvang Blessing Box, which is filled and emptied more than 10 times a day. There is another Blessing Box in Buellton located in the parking lot of Crossroads Church that is also filled multiple times a day. 

“We are so grateful to the community that just comes regularly to donate items of food and other necessities for their neighbors,” Breen said. “This is a grassroots movement and I am so thankful for everyone who is coming together to help others.” 

Breen wanted to stress to those who are in need to show up, and rumors of the food distribution shutting down were not valid. 

“We are going to be here as long as there is a need,” she said. “Even when COVID restrictions are lifted and people can go back to work and school full time, we will still be here for people. It might look a little different than a line each week, but we will be here.” 

For those who are interested in donating visit and click on Donate. Make sure the Food Distribution tab is clicked as well.