By Raiza Giorgi
Healthy living and eating right during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be extremely difficult for some families that are struggling to pay their bills when there has been loss of income. Several Santa Ynez Valley nonprofits that typically work independently have come together to ensure that no one goes hungry.
“We are putting boots to the road and our local nonprofits and organizations have come together in ways we have never done before,” said Pam Gnekow, executive director of the Santa Ynez Valley Senior Citizens’ Foundation and Buellton Senior Center. “We constantly are sharing resources and information and supplies to make sure that we keep people fed and checked on.”
Even now, as people are returning to work, living with the stress that the shutdown might come back again and or having to sacrifice a job to ensure their children are supervised while distance learning has also put families in difficult positions, Gnekow added as she is seeing in influx in families coming to her facility.
“We are usually stocked with food at 9 a.m. and two hours later there’s barely anything left that we have to restock many times during that day,’ she said. “I am seeing that the evening hours are also a ‘rush’ time as it’s typically mothers with young kids coming to pick up food. If it weren’t for our partnerships we wouldn’t be able to do this and who knows where these families would be without it.”
Without partnerships with other organizations like Veggie Rescue, the FoodBank of Santa Barbara County and businesses from Jordano’s and Cisco, there would be even more tough decisions for local families and seniors living on fixed incomes, Gnekow added.
Before Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the stay-at-home orders in mid-March, the Buellton Senior Center was averaging about 175 meals a day. That number has since almost doubled to 320 meals a day and the center has distributed more than 82,000 pounds of food through its farmers market table, which is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
Where Veggie Rescue steps in
After many years at the helm of Veggie Rescue, Executive Director Amy Derryberry said that pressing family matters need her undivided attention, and she is passing the reins as of August. However, she will continue to support the new director when chosen.
She added the pandemic has helped Veggie Rescue make more connections to food producers and providers in the state and get much needed nutrition to those who need it most.
“In 2019 we distributed an astonishing 140,000 pounds of food which was the most we ever have,” Derryberry said. “That seems so small now compared with this year through June we have already done 239,000 pounds of food.”
Derryberry added the colossal jump in food insecurity is not fading as fast as she would like before she exits, but she is so grateful for her partnerships and seeing the program increase its reach in Santa Barbara County.
“We continue working with our amazing farmers who have also suffered during this pandemic as they planted their crops months before COVID-19 hit in expectation for seasonal restaurant menus that have had to shut down or limit service. We do not let any crop go to waste,” Derryberry said.
Local growers like Tutti Frutti on Santa Rosa Road in Buellton have been wonderful partners as well as other farmers like Burkdoll Farms in the Central Valley, which is consistently donating extra produce to school lunch programs.
Veggie Rescue has expanded in working with Catholic Charities Food Pantry to now distribute to their locations in Lompoc and Santa Barbara and the Salvation Army location in Santa Maria.
Through new partnerships with growers networks in Ventura and Cisco, the program also brings in another 100,000 pounds of food that wouldn’t be possible without local support.
“Steve at Valley Tool Rental is letting us use his refrigerated food truck to pick up the food from Cisco and store it which enables us to get essentials like cottage cheese, bacon, chicken, beef, yogurt and milk to families in need,” Derryberry said. “This isn’t a short and easy fix.”
Derryberry added it is so satisfying being able to help other organizations feed their people from the Buellton and Solvang Senior Centers to school lunch programs and everything in between.
The Challenge Continues
“The challenge continues to be able to deliver the volume of food needed to help our communities, but together we can get this done,” Gnekow said. “We don’t want anyone to feel like they are going to go hungry — we won’t let that happen.”
As Santa Barbara County has dropped from 11.6 percent to 10 percent unemployment from June to July, according to figures the Employment Development Department (EDD) recently released, the need for food has not.
Gnekow said in addition to the food insecurity, the mental aspect especially for seniors is important to be aware of. Since this virus is most harmful to the older population, and those with underlying conditions from heart and lung diseases, Gnekow said some of her seniors are afraid to leave their homes.
“I started doing a breakfast check in with our seniors every first Thursday of the month. We take coffee and muffins and check on their mental wellness and see if we can help them in any way. We are up to 250 seniors as of mid-August,” Gnekow said.
Then her team added in “Date Nights” every fourth Thursday where they take seniors a dinner and make a theme every month. The theme for August was “Luau” so volunteer Sherry Musgrove prepared a Hawaiian-inspired dish and made deliveries.
“More than ever we need to be connected, even if we can’t be close to one another, we can still connect and help each other,” Gnekow said. “We are so grateful for all the people and organizations that are stepping up to do something, every little bit helps.”
How you can help
Both organizations said they could always use additional help from volunteers which would include duties like taking lunches for Meals on Wheels, helping sort through produce and stocking the produce tables.
Veggie Rescue said if anyone has a home garden or fruit trees with extra produce they are happy to come pick up extras as well.
Monetary donations are also welcome as that helps fuels their delivery trucks and more.