Who feeds the hungry in Humboldt County? And how are they managing to fulfill their mission during this time of job loss and lockdown?
Prior to the pandemic, 20 percent of Humboldt County households lived in poverty, and that's before COVID-19 restrictions put scores of residents out of work, sending the unemployment rate skyrocketing to 13 percent. Nearly a year later, 7.5 percent of local residents are unemployed — about double the pre-pandemic level. The pandemic has led to what officials have described as an unprecedented level of food insecurity locally, leaving a patchwork of nonprofits scrambling to meet demand while facing their own host of challenges.
Most hunger-relief agencies receive their food, either directly or indirectly, through the state and federal governments. At the top is the federal government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture purchases surplus vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy products and meats from farmers, and re-sells them to states to be used for various social service programs, including school lunches. In California, the governing agency is the Department of Social Services, which makes the discounted bulk foods available to Feeding America, a giant network of food banks. Through Feeding America, food is then distributed to food banks, such as Food for People in Humboldt County. Food for People, in turn, distributes the food to various local sites, called food pantries, where low-income individuals can shop, and to agencies such as senior centers and soup kitchens that provide group meals. (While the organization didn't respond to requests for comment for this story, Food for People reported in a recent newsletter that it feeds 10 percent of Humboldt County residents.)
While there still seems to be plenty of food, the pandemic has made distribution more challenging. Many of the agencies that distribute food depend heavily on volunteers to prepare and serve meals, transport foodstuffs and prepared meals from place to place, and deliver to homebound recipients. Volunteers are often retirees, the very group most endangered by COVID-19, and many of them have had to reluctantly stop offering their services.
Betty Kwan Chinn has dedicated her life to helping the poorest members of the local community, offering food and shelter to those who have no other options. But this task has become much harder since the pandemic struck. Chinn currently operates both a day center and a shelter that feeds and houses the homeless.
As people have lost jobs and struggled to come up with enough cash to pay the rent, there is little left over for food, and they must turn to charity. Chinn said she has seen a large increase over the past few months in those seeking aid, either needing a place to stay or a meal.
The biggest impact of the pandemic, Chinn said, is psychological.
"People are scared," she said. "They're in a corner. They're afraid of the virus, but being in quarantine is also a big problem. They feel like they've lost their freedom. At home, with nothing to do, they get into fights with family members. Then they rebel, and want to leave, and that makes things worse."
When another organization that used to feed the poor closed down because of the pandemic, Chinn said she took on about 125 new clients. She estimates that she feeds about 300 people per day. Since she never knows how many people will show up, it makes buying food tricky — she can't keep leftovers and can't afford to waste anything.
Chinn can no longer expect volunteers to help do the work in maintaining the shelters' kitchens. It is simply too dangerous — both for the volunteers and for the residents. So she now does everything herself and with her small permanent staff. Her workday begins at 3 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m. If she is lucky, there may be enough quiet time to catch a half-hour's rest on a couch.
Some clients are also now afraid to come to the center to get help because they fear exposure to the virus. If Chinn knows that they are in tough shape, that they are elderly or disabled, and they don't show up, she will go and look for them, to bring them some food and make sure they are all right.
The problem, Chinn said, is universal. There are homeless people all over the county, and they all need help. Impoverished people have called her from other states, and she has to tell them not to come to Humboldt County, that there is no room for them here.
Finances are a lot harder now, too, she said. Most of the items needed for daily living used to come from donations but since the pandemic struck, household items and clothing can no longer be accepted — there is too much risk of contamination. That means whatever is needed must be purchased. But less money is coming in, because when times get hard, donations to charity are the first thing to get dropped.
"People sometimes tell me that they want to give me money but they can't any more," Chinn said.
Despite all this, she has managed to stay open every day.
Another agency that has had to cope with the loss of volunteers is the McKinleyville Family Resource Center, which operates a food pantry. Although the pantry is supplied by Food for People, it has also relied heavily upon donations of food items from the community.
"We suspended our volunteering program, which is about 500 hours a month of work," said MFRC Director Hillarie Beyer, "and those were the people who were sorting food donations. We had to stop accepting donations [of food] because we didn't know if we should be bringing stuff in, and then later because I haven't brought the volunteers back and we can't sort them.
"We've been raising money to replace what we would normally get in donated food," Beyer continued. "The community is really generous. We've raised about $75,000 for COVID response and some of that is going to food and some of it is going to direct family assistance. We're good probably for the next couple of months."
Darlene Spoor, Executive Director of the Arcata House Partnership, which provides a multitude of social services for needy Arcatans, said her agency has also been severely impacted.
"We have not been able to use volunteers and that has impacted us," she said. "The cost of serving food in individual servings has been astronomical. We have more clients than ever before. An astronomical increase."
Spoor said she's grateful for all those in the community have stepped in to lend their support.
"When the restaurants first started closing, they donated thousands of pounds of food that we were able to use to feed people," she said. "It is just amazing the way the community has come forth to support us. People give us tax-deductible donations.
When COVID first hit, Arcata House opened a "tent lot" that it operated through August to give people a place to shelter. Spoor said the governor's office has provided funding through the Continuum of Care program to help house people, but an influx of people moving to Humboldt County to live cheaply and work remotely has impacted housing stock.
"We try to help people from becoming homeless," Spoor said. "Last year there were many more available low-cost units to rent. People get money from the government, but there are no vacancies. It is difficult. We cannot help people if there is no place for them to go."
Spoor stressed her gratitude for the community support.
"The community has been wonderful," she said. "The business community has been very supportive. The governor has been very supportive. We are grateful."
A page on Arcata House's website, however, was more emphatic.
"We have extended our budget to the breaking point," it said. "We have hired more staff. We have used a line of credit. ... COVID IS NOT OVER! This is a genuine crisis of national and international proportions ... We are a small nonprofit dealing with a worldwide crisis in our own county."
Seniors are another group that often depends upon charities and social service agencies to make ends meet. The Humboldt Senior Resource Center in Eureka provided meals in its dining room and also delivers meals to those who are housebound. Tasha Romo, the center's director of nutrition and activities, said her agency had to stop using volunteers and that the staff had also been cut back.
"People want to volunteer, especially now that they have more time, but we can't use them," she said.
The demand for meals, meanwhile, has increased 41 percent. To help meet the gap, the center gets some funding from the Area 1 Agency on Aging and also partners with Food for People which provides a monthly produce bag per household.
The Humboldt-Del Norte Cattlemen's Association also donated $750 worth of beef to the nutrition program.
The dining center is closed during the pandemic but clients can pick up a package containing five meals once a week. In addition to providing meals to Eureka seniors, the center also provides meals to dining programs located in Arcata and Fortuna.
The most severe cutback has been to the Home Delivered Meals program, which used to deliver meals five times a week but now does so just once. The same number of meals are delivered, but now only one is fresh and the other four are flash-frozen.
This results in the loss of the social contact that some housebound seniors desperately need. For some, the only human contact they had was with their meals-on-wheels driver.
The McKinleyville Senior Center, which also used to feed people, has meanwhile not been able to weather the storm.
"We are not able to offer any services," said Director Rene Quintana. "The pandemic completely froze us and shut us down. We've lost connection with all our [food] providers and will have to start fresh and create new ones."
While Trinidad conjures images of lavish, ocean-view homes, many poor people live in or around the small city. The Trinidad Lions Club receives food from Food for People and distributes it once a month at the Town Hall.
George Cozens, who manages the food pantry, said that Lions unload the food from the delivery van, store it at Town Hall and re-package it into bags. At one time, people were able to pick and choose what they wanted. But since the pandemic, that is no longer possible. Volunteers, carefully masked and socially distanced, now hand a package to a member of each household. The numbers fluctuate, but seem to run in the vicinity of 30 to 40 families per month.
The Lions also give out food vouchers for the holidays.
Nearly all religions emphasize the importance of caring for the poor but some take that mandate seriously enough to make it an important part of their lives. Johnny Calkins, a member of the Church of the Joyful Healer in McKinleyville, is one of those.
For the past several years, every Saturday he has brought a big batch of homemade soup to the church. His mother purchases the ingredients and prepares the soup as her donation. Homeless and hungry people come to the church to dine. (Other church members also contribute cooked food.) Calkins estimates that the church feeds between 15 and 30 people per week.
Calkins noted that a whole network of McKinleyville churches and ministries team up to make sure that people are fed. One such group asked specifically not to be named because they had previously been criticized for being "part of the problem." Other churches volunteer to deliver a large home-cooked meal each month to the Arcata adult shelter.
It is now harder to get volunteers, Calkins said. Before, many of the people who ate at the church also volunteered to help serve and clean up. Now COVID regulations forbid such interactions. Church groups that used to offer indoor dining now hand out sandwiches to avoid indoor gatherings.
Calkins has seen the difference in the clientele.
"They used to come and sit at tables inside, charge their phones, get clothes and connect to each other and the servers," he said. "We had a pretty large group of regulars. Now they straggle by to get food and not as many stay when the weather is bad."
"We've had families baking cookies weekly to put in the lunches that are delivered," he continued. "We've been able to take care of special needs through programs offered by the county ... and funds contributed by the Humboldt Area Foundation. We all work well together to serve the needs of McKinleyville folks experiencing homelessness. Sadly, the need is still much greater than what we can offer." l
Editor's note: Elaine Weinreb is a regular donor to Food for People, among other civic and charitable organizations.
Elaine Weinreb (she/her) is a freelance journalist. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.