San Rafael-based nonprofit Whistlestop rolled out Summer Family Dinners in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The new program aims to support and feed families in the area through nourishing meals. (Photos courtesy of Whistlestop)

In the wake of the pandemic, Whistlestop, a San Rafael-based nonprofit focused on assisting seniors age with dignity through support services, was hit hard. And though the organization’s daily schedule was disrupted, including scaling back programs that required outside visitors to enter the facility, organizers were undeterred. In fact, instead of rolling over in defeat the nonprofit ramped up four programs, and started a fifth, that feed not only at-risk and isolated individuals, but hungry, poor, sick and undeserved demographics as well.

Whistlestop’s newest program, Summer Family Dinners (SFD), is a collaborative effort with Canal Alliance Food Pantry. The program specializes in precooked meals for families of four, and focuses on serving the Latinx community. It is projected to feed 2,000 people by Aug. 31.

Lori Horne, SFD cofounder, contends it’s vital “to support our neighbors in the Canal [neighborhood] and San Rafael, many of whom are multi-generational families with limited or no access to government-sponsored relief programs.” 

In addition to SFD, Whistlestop’s other boosted programs include Meals to Go, a new curbside pickup endeavor based out of Jackson Café; Meals on Wheels, a well-known program in partnership with the county that services 350 people with seven meals a week; and Whistlestop Nourish, which provides meals to folks who don’t meet the Meals on Wheels criteria. 

Plus, Whistlestop’s Brown Bag Pantry program offers free fresh produce, meats and staple food items from the San Francisco Marin Food Bank intended for hungry county residents who are 60 years and older or disabled. Since the start of the pandemic, Brown Bag Pantry has grown by roughly 80 percent in order to meet community needs.

Erika Vaughn, Whistlestop’s Nourish and Meals on Wheels program manager, readies trays of food for delivery.

And the other Whistlestop-led program statistics are just as impressive. SFD, which began a month ago, has already delivered 1,200 meals, while Nourish has expanded by 25 percent since the outbreak having distributed nearly 13,000 meals. Meals to Go has provided 3,700 meals, and Meals on Wheels swelled by 40 percent and delivered 35,000 meals. When all tallied up, Whistlestop (in partnership with and Insalata’s restaurant) has handed out nearly 57,000 meals and more than 3,200 bags of groceries so far, and its efforts have not gone unnoticed.

“Not only am I receiving good food, [but] it’s delivered to me by a very nice driver who always makes time to talk. She even brought me two masks to wear if I leave my home,” said Tomika Stuart, a Nourish recipient with multiple sclerosis.

Whistlestop’s communications director, Jennifer Golbus, noted that for many of the nonprofit’s clients, meal deliveries are often the only social contact these members of the community have all day.

“Yes, we’re providing food but, really, it’s also nourishment for the body and for the spirit,” she said.

 “If we continue to do our part in making clients feel less lonely or isolated while faced with this pandemic, we’ve done a wonderful job,” added Erika Vaughn, Nourish and Meals on Wheels’ program manager.