The Redwood Empire Food Bank distributing food to families in need during the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of the Redwood Empire Food Bank)

Redwood Empire Food Bank, the largest hunger relief organization on the North Coast, reported a slight rise in the amount of food it distributed in August, reflecting the ongoing toll of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the impact of recent wildfires.

The Sonoma County-based food bank said that in August it distributed an average of 612,008 pounds of food a week to individuals and partner food-relief organizations, up from 592,505 pounds a week in July. The numbers are to be reported Tuesday to the county Board of Supervisors, which has directed funds to a variety of hunger relief organizations during the pandemic, including the food bank.

The August numbers are below the sky-high figures of June – when an average weekly distribution of 828,506 pounds was recorded – but still represent a remarkable increase in need.

In the five months leading up to the point at the end of March when shelter-in-place orders transformed life in the Bay Area, the food bank distributed 6.5 million pounds of food, the equivalent of 5.4 million meals and a total value of $8.3 million, said Rachelle Mesheau, marketing and public relations manager for the food bank.

By contrast, from April to Aug. 20, the food bank has distributed 14.8 million pounds of food, equivalent to 12.3 million meals and worth $20 million, Mesheau said. This August alone, the food bank served 82,975 people, compared to the average in August of 30,000, an increase of 177 percent.

The food bank distributes food in Sonoma, Mendocino, Del Norte, Humboldt and Lake counties; it currently has 318 distribution sites and partners with 170 other hunger relief programs in the region.

At Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, which also received pandemic-related funding from the county, the measure of need is this: prior to April, the organization distributed 18,000 pounds of food to 1,300 households a month. Since April, those numbers have been 31,000 pounds of food a month distributed to 4,200 households.

“There’s so many people who are living right there on the edge and all it takes is one week out of work, or even just a few days,” said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer for Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa.

She said the number of people the nonprofit distributes food to has just started to “slightly decrease as people are getting back to work, but the need is still great.”

The county has allocated to the food bank and eight other food distribution organizations in Sonoma County – ranging from Catholic Charities to the Salvation Army – a combined $2 million in federal funds, 75 percent of which the Federal Emergency Management Agency is to refund. Another $1.5 million in funding from the federal CARES Act, the coronavirus relief and stimulus bill passed in March, is to go to local food programs but how it will be broken down is not yet decided, according to county staff.

By contrast, Redwood Empire Food Bank distributed $44 million worth of groceries in 2019. That food went to 82,000 people in Sonoma County alone – which is roughly half the number the food bank expects to serve this year, said Mesheau.

At Catholic Charities, Holmes said of the county funds, “It allows us to provide a little more consistency in terms of what people can expect in terms of healthy, nutritious foods at our distributions.”

She added: “The need always outweighs the resources, which is why the funding is such an important component. And when it comes to the food services, we know how to stretch every penny.”