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Columnist John Burns shares how Petalumans can lend a hand amid food crisis

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“You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.”

—Pope Francis

“Have you ever experienced hunger?” The question caught me off guard.

I was interviewing sources about the sudden spike in Petaluma residents needing food due to the pandemic-induced economic calamity and was speaking with Lynne Moquete, a Casa Grande High School teacher. In her spare time, she runs Una Vida, a nonprofit organization helping vulnerable families here in Petaluma.

Moquete wanted to know my perspective on the issue before we talked in greater depth about her own extraordinary endeavors to alleviate hunger for the many lower-income families she encounters daily.

I responded that I’d been fortunate to have never been personally touched by the problem now threatening a rapidly increasing number of local residents each week due to skyrocketing unemployment rates.

Moquete shared that she has personally known hunger, both as a child and an adult, and that experience drives her to help others suffering from malnutrition and undernutrition today.

“People are contacting me every day needing food,” says Moquete. “These are bad days. The situation is going to get worse over the next few months.”

At the Salvation Army building on South McDowell Boulevard, where people come to pick up boxes of donated food, longtime volunteer David Adams said the organization has seen the number of families needing food increase from 300 to 425 over the last month, a number he expects to climb as the economic recession deepens.

Much of the food the organization obtains comes from local grocery stores that donate day-old bread and nearly expired milk, eggs and vegetables. But these days, due to erratic shifts in food-buying habits, local grocers don’t have as much to give.

Every year in early May, local U.S. Postal Service carriers hold a food drive which has brought more than 50,000 pounds of canned food to the Salvation Army’s 5,000-square-foot warehouse where some is shared with residents at COTS, the local homeless shelter. But this year’s food drive has been canceled due to the pandemic and Adams is worried.

To give locals an opportunity to help, he told me that starting next week the Salvation Army will begin accepting canned food donations at their South McDowell Blvd. warehouse on weekday mornings.

Adams hopes that a similar City of Petaluma food drive, to be held in conjunction with the Redwood Empire Food Bank this Saturday, will also boost local food supplies. However, Adams notes that once those donations reach the food bank’s Santa Rosa warehouse, his organization must pay 19 cents per pound to have the food trucked back to Petaluma for local distribution.

If that sounds a bit inefficient, it is. But that’s just the way things currently work since the regional food bank, a vital resource for keeping people fed, must cover its costs for transportation and storage.

Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center, says that there are many opportunities to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of food donation and distribution in the South County.

“What this virus has done has forced us to think more about how we can leverage regional support to meet local needs,” she said.

While fixing the problem is certain to be discussed, right now the priority is getting food to the people who need it.

Hempel says she has seen a nearly 50% spike in seniors needing her agency’s Meals on Wheels program, which delivers one highly nutritious daily meal to seniors who are unable to get to the grocery store. About half of the program’s costs are covered by federal and state grants, but the rest of the money to buy food, Hempel says, comes from local donors.

Another one of PPSC’s food relief programs is Petaluma Bounty, run by Suzi Grady. I caught up with Grady last week as she was putting together the final details of Bounty’s Annual Plant Sale, their biggest annual fundraiser, which helps underwrite the extraordinarily innovative food access program that pushes beyond immediate hunger relief toward the establishment of longstanding food security.

The idea is to increase access to healthy food for low income consumers while increasing the economic viability of local farms.

With the virus having temporarily sidelined the program’s volunteer base from local corporations and schools, Grady is currently welcoming donations to help her team make the locally grown produce more affordable for people in need.

And the number of those people is growing rapidly. A recent article in the Press Democrat on the county’s sudden and deepening hunger crisis focused on the challenges threatening to overwhelm the Redwood Empire Food Bank, where National Guard troops were recently called in to help stock food boxes in the absence of volunteers ordered to shelter in place.

Food Bank CEO David Goodman was quoted reflecting upon what questions might be asked once the crisis had passed. The most salient: “Did you help, or did you hide?”

With health department orders for people to stay at home, hiding is easy to do these days. However, if you’d like to help, here are some ideas you might wish to consider.

Donate to Petaluma People Services Center’s Meals on Wheels or Bounty Farm programs at petalumapeople.org or petalumabounty.org.

Mail a check to the Petaluma Salvation Army at 721 South McDowell Blvd., Petaluma, 94954 and note “Petaluma Food Pantry” in the memo line.

Donate to Committee on the Shelterless at cots.org, where the kitchen at the Mary Isaak Center provides several thousand meals each month to homeless people.

Donate to the Redwood Empire Food Bank at refb.org or drop off non-perishable food items at the Sonoma-Marin fairgrounds this Saturday between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Donors will be able to drive-through to maintain current public health safety standards. For more information, call 523-7900, ext. 178.

Beginning Monday, drop canned and other non-perishable food items at the Salvation Army, 721 South McDowell Blvd. Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 noon.

To help Lynne Moquete deliver food to local families, go to una-vida.org.

(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.)

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