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Amid the chaos of a disrupted food supply chain and growing numbers of people in need, a creative partnership between a produce distributor and a nonprofit food rescue program is getting fresh food to hungry families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The partnership is a direct outgrowth of the US Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box emergency project, begun in April as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The program, which has already distributed 5 million food boxes nationwide, calls for farm product distributors in the USDA program to name a nonprofit to receive food boxes.

CDS Distributing, a produce distribution service in South San Francisco, opted to partner with White Pony Express, a Pleasant Hill-based nonprofit food rescue and delivery service.

A look inside a box of fresh fruits and vegetables donated by Vesta Foodservice of San Francisco.

“I was very impressed by the work (White Pony Express) did and by the fact that they were chosen as the nonprofit of the year in 2018 for Sen. Steve Glazer’s (D-Orinda) district,” said Katie Flaherty, CDS sales representative. “I like that WPE is delivering to the smaller venues.”

Prior to the pandemic, White Pony Express delivered more than 10,000 pounds of surplus food each week. Now it gets 28,000 pounds weekly of lettuce, carrots, onions, potatoes, oranges and apples in the food boxes from CDS, which it sends to more than 70 community partners, including homeless shelters and food banks.

The food deliveries have been especially critical in this period. Starting in mid-march, lockdown orders shut restaurants and many businesses, leaving thousands of pounds of food rotting in the fields.

Meanwhile, rising unemployment produced a surge in the number of families who could not afford to buy the food they need.

“There was this groundswell of new volunteers who recognized the need, so now we have fresh faces who really saved us.”

Eve Birge, White Pony Express

One thankful community recipient of the increased deliveries is Living Hope Neighborhood Church in Richmond, which now feeds more than 50 families each week through White Pony Express.

“This has been a blessing for our church and community,” said Dave Clark, a pastor at Living Hope, adding that the church is “extremely grateful” for the way White Pony Express’s staff works.

Eve Birge, executive director of White Pony Express, credited hard-working volunteers for the nonprofit’s ability to help so many people.

During the early days of the pandemic, she said, many volunteers had to reduce their commitment to daily operations, but since then the operation has rebuilt — and grown — its team.

“There was this groundswell of new volunteers who recognized the need, so now we have fresh faces who really saved us,” said Birge, noting that the organization has even managed to add an extra shift for volunteers.

The future still holds uncertainties, one of which is what will happen when contracts with the USDA expire at the end of June. In a move to ensure it has food to distribute, White Pony Express recently agreed to partner with Vesta Foodservice, which operates SF Specialty Produce from its base in Hayward. Whether or not there is a contract with USDA, Vesta has agreed to provide White Pony with leftover produce, which often includes excess inventory, including food that doesn’t meet presentation standards for normal retail sales.

Birge said she is confident that White Pony will continue with partnerships it formed during the pandemic, but she stressed that in the longer term public officials need to mend disruptions in the food chain.