Petaluma food programs see surge as financial crisis persists
Roger Davis stood in the parking lot of Elim Lutheran Church, observing the line of people that hugged the perimeter of the west side property.
It was a Thursday evening at the weekly Interfaith Food Pantry, and as he watched a steady procession of people carry away two free bags of groceries each, Davis wondered if this would be the week when he would run out.
“I’ve been seeing lots of new faces here lately and we’ve been able to sustain the growing numbers so far, but if it starts to get any larger than it is now then we may not be able to sustain this,” said Davis, the church’s president and one of the distribution event’s primary organizers.
The 11-year-old food pantry, administered by a diverse group of Petaluma’s faith leaders, is running up against its limits as more residents express a need for food. For years the group has been able to provide for roughly 50 families each week, a number that has nearly doubled since the coronavirus pandemic hit just a few months ago.
It’s a similar story for the city’s patchwork of food providers, ranging from the Salvation Army to smaller operations like those at faith-based locations and those organized by small nonprofits. Across the board, demand is through the roof, and it’s forcing a closer look at how well the city’s various food distributions are meeting a rapid rise in need.
The inability to purchase food is a dire financial stressor that Lynne Moquete, veteran educator at Casa Grande High School, knows intimately. She has been feeding families through her small nonprofit Una Vida for 24 years.
After her mother died while she was in high school, Moquete’s life abruptly changed and she began experiencing poverty and food insecurity for the first time. Drawing from that difficult period and from her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, Moquete devotes much of her free time to feeding families in Petaluma.
Yet compared to her years of volunteer work, including through wildfires, the novel coronavirus pandemic has spawned a type of fear and uncertainty she says she hasn’t witnessed before. Just how long this will drag on is unknown, with families confiding that they’re not even sure if they will have a job to return to or uncertain they will be able to pay rent a few weeks from now.
“This has impacted people in so many ways,” Moquete said. “Some of my friends are donating food, and now some of my friends are coming to get food. This week, I saw a bunch of kids including two former students of mine and one current student.”
Her operation, which has grown more than twofold during the coronavirus pandemic to feed more than 70 households, relies heavily on private donations. Fishman Supply provides paper goods including toilet paper, Lunchette donates food regularly and Preferred Sonoma Caterers donates loaves of fresh banana bread each week.
For the rest, Moquete buys from Redwood Food Bank to fill in the gaps, ensuring there’s always a pantry full of food, her inbox overflowing with new requests for help each day.
Of the nearly 20 food distribution centers in Petaluma listed on Redwood Empire Food Bank’s database, a handful are either fully or partially canceled. Different locations cater to different needs, with several stationed at senior living centers and offering meals to those 60 and older. Some are drive-thru only, others pick-up, and most are held monthly during an hour-long period.
Now that the pandemic’s economic crisis has increased food insecurity across the city, especially for those in economically vulnerable positions, Petaluma People Services Center Executive Director Elece Hempel is worried this rag-tag assemblage of food providers is allowing some residents to fall through the cracks.
In partnership with the Petaluma Community Relations Council, Hempel is sprinting to find ways to consolidate resources and maintain a stronger grasp on community needs amid the pandemic crisis.
“All these organizations serve their own little slice of the pie, and now we’re all trying to create a more central and coordinated approach,” Hempel said. “This is to both ensure safety and to collaborate more with each other and make sure we’re not duplicating efforts.”
It’s a spattering of locations, hours and food options that several community leaders see as inefficient to keep up with new realities. For Mayor Teresa Barrett, it’s also posing a problem for outreach and limiting the city’s ability to ascertain the scope of need and economic hardship among residents.
“A lot of people rely on word of mouth to find out about these distributions, and that’s really just like a game of telephone,” Barrett said. “Right now there’s not a structure that can just reach out and get to everybody, outreach is more happenstance and it’s a concern to me just how well we’re reaching out to those who need help the most.”
Barrett said low income residents, Spanish speakers and those without internet access or otherwise cut off from sources of information are already hard to reach, and the shelter-in-place has further limited opportunities for outreach.
At Elim Lutheran Church, many of those who patronize the food distribution live in the area and discovered the program purely through neighbors and seeing the weekly event take place.
The largest food provider in the city is the Petaluma Salvation Army, holding pickups three times a week and serving an estimated 936,000 pounds of food each year. The organization’s chairman David Adams said there’s been a 30% upswing since the virus hit, and his organization is now feeding up to 450 families each week compared to the roughly 300 before.
“It isn’t necessarily that people are going hungry, but if people are obtaining food from us then they don’t have to choose between keeping the heat on or buying groceries,” Adams said. “That is a very real choice people are forced to make right now.”
Hempel said community leaders are meeting this week to begin the work of creating a more centralized food system, expecting that the need for food will continue for many more months and potentially rise even more. In the meantime, residents like Davis and Moquete are continuing to hold the line, determined they will always have food to give to anyone who needs it.
After the end of another exhaustingly long day, this week distributing food from her own garage, Moquete sat down to eat dinner. As she scrolled her email inbox, she saw a name she recognized attached to a message titled “banana bread.” It was that same student of hers she had seen earlier, a high school freshman thanking her for the fresh-baked loaf and free groceries.
“It’s so appreciated,” he wrote.
(Contact Kathryn Palmer at email@example.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)