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Second Harvest Food Bank and Laguna Food Pantry work to fight food insecurity in OC

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Laguna Food Pantry has a long history as a network partner with Second Harvest Food Bank – 21 years to be exact. However, this past year has been one of unprecedented challenges with regard to food insecurity in Orange County.

 Second Harvest Food Bank set a record for the amount of food provided last year with an 81.9 percent increase from March 2020 to January 2021 – over the same period the year before.

“The Laguna Food Pantry is part of the network that we need to be very aware of for the next 12-18 months as people cycle out of the fallout from COVID-19,” says Harald Herrmann, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County. “There are vaccinations, the sun is shining, and people have aspirations, and it’s fantastic, but there is still the real issue of food insecurity in the county. We want to make sure that it remains very much at the top of our minds.”

Second Harvest new area

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Enlarged space at The Laguna Food Pantry to accommodate cooler

Executive Director of Laguna Food Pantry Anne Belyea says, “When we transitioned to outdoor distribution in March of last year, the number of shoppers went from 80-100 a day to 180-200 a day, with the highest being right before Thanksgiving with 282 shoppers,” says Belyea.

Of course, the growth in the number of shoppers meant the food supply needed be increased. “In March of 2020, the amount of food we got from Second Harvest and food rescue totaled 10,000 lbs, and in February of 2021, it was 100,000 lbs,” she says. “Second Harvest has really stepped up to the plate. They have a phenomenal team.”

Second Harvest is doubling its countywide food distribution from its pre-COVID averages. An additional 3.9 million dollars is needed for the increased demands in OC for the rest of the year. 

“That figure is a moment in time,” says Herrmann, “as it is constantly refreshed, but the numbers come down to food demand – which is generated by unemployment and the newly unemployed – and with that, our marching orders.”

Second Harvest Food box

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Second Harvest Food Box

“We solicit experts to vet forecasts, tied specifically to unemployment. In January, the unemployment figure of 7.4 percent may be low – another 4 percent could be added to take into consideration those who still haven’t received benefits, or received the first round, but not the second, and those who just didn’t apply for benefits. 

“The entire network has been focused on this need,” says Herrmann, “and has acted as a safety net to help Orange County get back on its feet.”

Before the surge of shoppers in March of last year, Pantry volunteers picked up the food at Second Harvest. But because the amount of food increased 10-fold, it was necessary to add two weekly Second Harvest deliveries (on Monday and Thursday) to Laguna Food Pantry, and the deliveries would need to be on pallets. 

Belyea says, “We needed more space, so we went to the city to get planning commission backing for an easement – to pour concrete – and to move the fence which would take up a small portion of the dog park. On July 4, a crane dropped an 80 by 20-foot cooler on the property. In addition to Second Harvest, we have also partnered with more grocery stores to pick up food – from the original seven markets, we now have 14 participating.”

Second Harvest pallets into cooler

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Twice a week, on Monday and Thursday, Second Harvest delivers five pallets consisting of 240 boxes weighing 8,800 lbs. Driver Joe McCree deposits them in the new cooler.

“It’s our model that a percentage of the food is provided by Second Harvest and the rest is food rescue,” says Herrmann, “which is a service. It keeps food from going to waste, prevents it from reaching the landfill, and reduces our carbon footprint.”

The Pantry’s inventory includes the rescued groceries, food purchased from wholesale grocers, donations from regional food banks, local markets, and private donors.

There is also another cause for concern, which directly affects children who were in the school meal programs.

“Because schools have been closed the past year – breakfast and lunch, and the goody food bags children would take home have all stopped,” says Belyea.

It’s not difficult to imagine that during a normal year, for some, these school meals might be their main source of food.

“Children are having to cope with being hungry while at the same time trying to learn and facing the difficulties of online classes,” says Herrman. 

These aren’t isolated situations or specific to big cities.

“This seems like a far-removed problem, but this could happen in any city in OC,” says Herrmann. “It lives in the shadow of every corner of Orange County. No child should be hungry.”

Belyea gives an example of the dire situation one family faced.

“We received a message on the website in the middle of the night from a single mother with four children who said, ‘I lost my job and we’re hungry. How can we qualify for food?’” 

Second Harvest Cynthia

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Operations Manager, Board Member Cynthia Carson

For shoppers at the Pantry, there are no qualifications.

To add to the stress, families might have to go to several food source locations to get the nutritious groceries that they need.

Second Harvest remains focused on quality. In navigating its bulk food purchases, nutrition is prioritized.

“In February, we fed over 4,000 families,” says Belyea. “That figure has  doubled from this time last year – going from 2,167 families in February of 2020 to 4,128 families last month.”

Herrmann calls The Pantry, “Small but mighty. They are committed, effective, and efficient. It’s a credit to the ability of their team to be able to feed that many households.”

Volunteers

“We have a great team of volunteers,” says Belyea. “We’ve been networking with the volunteers and some are coming back. The response has been incredible to see. We couldn’t do this without them, they’re family. One of our longtime volunteers Marianna Hoff just returned, and the shoppers were so happy to see her.” 

This is an indication of the level of dignity that the Pantry has in terms of relating to the shoppers who come for food. 

“Some of the shoppers say that never in their wildest dreams did they expect to be in line for food,” says Herrmann. “It’s a not a hand-out, it’s a hand-up. It’s an emotional investment. The volunteers are friendly and gracious. Before the store closed, it was like a mom-and-pop store. The volunteers have been able to carry that warmth to those coming to the drive-thru in the parking lot.”

Second Harvest volunteers

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Volunteer Appreciation Tree 

As a strange coincidence, Belyea mentions that her grandfather owned a mom-and-pop store, so she already had a sense of what it’s like to shop in that kind of friendly atmosphere.

“Last March, with all the craziness as the pandemic hit – it was like a sprint, and now we’re in for the long haul, and it’s settled into a marathon pace,” says Herrmann. “But we can’t become desensitized as a community.”

Belyea adds, “Now that parents may be going back to work, they are also faced with the costs of childcare.”

Underemployed population

“The newly vulnerable are the underemployed population – those who are paid hourly, and now work only two to three days per week,” says Herrmann. “The lower middle class is becoming the working poor and have never had to ask for food before. They are only five to 10 paychecks away from that situation. This is another fallout from the pandemic. It’s going to take a long time to get them back on their feet – mentally, physically, and financially.” 

Many have accumulated debt over the past year in the form of rent deferments and unpaid utilities – and have resorted to using credit cards in addition to draining their savings. 

“Now they are trying to climb out of debt,” says Herrmann. “The Laguna Food Pantry provides an addition measure of support for these families – a bridge as they get back on their feet. When you hit rock bottom, those who are rebounding need help. We are true partners in getting that job done. We’re at the ready to get OC back on its feet, but we will need the community’s help.”

Laguna Food Pantry is located at 20652 Laguna Canyon Rd, open for drive-thru shoppers from 8-10:30 a.m. Monday - Friday.

For more information about Laguna Food Pantry, go to www.lagunafoodpantry.org. 

For more information about Second Harvest Food Bank, go to www.feedoc.org.

 

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