On Tuesday morning at Santa Rosa's Redwood Empire Food Bank, the North Coast's largest emergency food hub, soldiers from California's National Guard deployed, part of state government's rollout of emergency responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fort Bragg's Food Bank was bustling on Tuesday morning, too, though not on the scale of a military deployment. The busy, barebones but welcoming warehouse, offices and often — though not now — clearinghouse for used clothes, books and other necessaries, on North Franklin Street in Fort Bragg, is open five days a week these days instead of three.
Amanda Friscia, Executive Director of the Mendocino Food and Nutrition Program, the Food Bank's official name, said her team has adjusted on the fly in recent weeks, serving a reduced walk-in clientele, but also delivering curbside and taking meals to seniors' homes. The Fort Bragg operation, like all Food Banks, has lost a good portion of its volunteers to COVID-19 precautions, since Food Bank volunteer corps everywhere are mostly made up of seniors.
But a (younger) team of emergency hands has stepped up, Friscia said, and in Fort Bragg, emergency food distribution is going strong, if not 100% smoothly.
But, she said, "Right now if you're without a job, and you don't have that money, you can use the Food Bank."
There could well be hundreds of families on the Mendocino Coast right now who are looking at how to pay the grocery bill. Every one of them has a generous parcel of very high quality food waiting, thanks to the skills of veteran warehouse manager Jim DiMauro.
"For the weekly food, people can sign up over the phone," Friscia said, which is probably a better way to do it, now that social distancing is in effect. The Food Bank’s lobby, usually a chatty place, is limited to three occupants at a time now. But, Friscia said, because of being open the extra two days a week, plus curbside and home delivery, waits tend to be shorter now anyway.
Many of Food Bank's regular clients have been put in a terrible Catch-22 by COVID-19 and the response, Friscia said: "What happens when you are asked to shelter in place but you have no shelter?"
"We can only provide so much," she went on "But my main focus is that people have food, healthy food, and that they have a way to enjoy it."
To that end, the Food Bank makes “camping packages” for people who have to live without kitchens, and much of the Food Bank's regular fare is easy to carry and prepare.
The shock that COVID-19 delivered to all government and support systems is partly being relieved at the Food Bank by a federal emergency food relief package, material support from the state’s Food Bank network (750 boxes of food that Friscia said lasted abput a week) and emergency grants from the Community Foundation of Mendocino County. The first round of all these forms of aid has arrived, Friscia said, and she expects the next round anytime. No doubt, she said, aid needs to keep coming for the forseeable future.
For the present, Friscia added, the larger emergency food distribution network seems to be holding its own. The Fort Bragg Food Bank's truck is making two trips a week to the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa instead of one.
Friscia said there's been no interruption in supply so far, maybe a few more substitutions than normal. She says she's confident that the region's elected represetatives get it and that Food Banks will be a priority and get what they need.
That doesn't mean everything's taken care of though. Aid is coming, but it's a nationwide effort and wheels on that scale turn slowly.
Regarding the food boxes from the state, of which more are promised though it's unclear when, Friscia said: "To be honest, we could have used a lot more, and I'm sure there are a lot of other Food Banks saying the same thing."
Friscia's said her approach is to focus on what's in front of her: Fort Bragg families — several hundred of them and their number is growing — who need to know where their and their kids' next meals are coming from.
She said community support is more vital than ever: "We're really benfiting from people asking to volunteer in various ways, from home deliveries to help in the warehouse."
She said they lost their longtime cook, Yuki, a senior who is sheltering at home, so getting food prepared for volunteers has been a challenge. She said they're also in need of sturdy cardboard boxes, especially wine boxes, and durable paper and plastic bags.
Friscia said her main message to coast communities now is just that the Food Bank is there, open Monday through Friday, at 910 N. Franklin Street in Fort Bragg. Seniors-only morning hours, for walk-in or curbside pickup, are 10 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. Hours for the general public are noon to 3 p.m. There is an extra pickup time on Wednesdays from 4:30-5:30 p.m. The Fort Bragg Food Bank's phone number to sign up, volunteer, contribute, or for general questions, is 707/964.9404.