Last week, volunteers from White Pony Express, one of several food assistance programs working to fight hunger in Contra Costa County during the COVID-19 pandemic, drove to a local school expecting to hand out bags of food to about 200 families.
Instead, the volunteers were surprised to find a line of more than 600 cars, filled with families hoping for a few fresh groceries.
“We emptied two full box vans and scrambled to get more groceries for the rest of the families in cars,” recalled Helen Jones, manager of WPE’s food rescue operations.
Obtaining food during the COVID-19 pandemic has become a nerve-wracking ordeal marked by long lines and depleted supplies at grocery stores. Adding to the heartache is the fact that a growing number of laid-off workers can’t afford even basic meals.
In Contra Costa, White Pony Express and other aid organizations have stepped up to meet the soaring needs of furloughed and laid-off workers as the economic impacts of the pandemic spread.
The nonprofit, largely volunteer WPE, based in Pleasant Hill, has doubled its food distribution in recent weeks to nearly 20,000 pounds per day, said board member Cindy Gershen, a longtime food activist and teacher at Mount Diablo High School.
Instead of each family or city simply taking care of its own, “We can set up a system where all of us take care of all of us. We have to change the mindset. There’s a giant need here,” Gershen said.
The group collects high-quality, largely perishable surplus food from grocery stores, farmers markets, restaurants, catering companies, and wholesalers, and distributes it in refrigerated vehicles directly to families or to other organizations serving those in need.
“We know people need this food so much,” said WPE’s interim executive director, Isa Campbell. “We’re trying hard to increase our capability to deliver the food available to us. We need another box van, and we’re looking for additional space where we can process all this food while we’re ‘social distancing’.”
Help may be on the way soon. Concord Mayor Tim McGallian said the city is working out final details to acquire a 90,000-square-foot empty Kmart store on Clayton Road, which will vastly expand the ability of WPE and other food organizations to distribute food to families in need.
“We’re just coming into the (pandemic) wave, and people are getting furloughed,” McGallian said. “We’re just in the beginning, and that’s what we’re trying to get ahead of.”