A Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano "Community Produce Program" event Thursday in Pittsburg. (Photo via Sam Richards/BCN Foundation)

It seems as if almost every year, food bank officials say the demand is greater than ever. For two area agencies, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano and the Alameda County Community Food Bank, in 2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, that premise has borne out big time.

“Demand has been up 50 to 70 percent from last year,” said Michael Altfest, director of community engagement for the Alameda County organization. “We distributed the most food in October that we have ever distributed in a single month,” about 4.95 million pounds.

Kim Castaneda, vice president of development and communications with the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, reported a similar increase, 65 percent more food given away in 2020 than over the same period in 2019, going to 50 percent more people each month than a year ago.

“These are people who’ve been laid off, people living paycheck to paycheck,” Castaneda said this week. “We serve the working poor, and that includes many of the people who have lost their jobs at restaurants and motels because of COVID.”

Last year, the North Concord-based food bank served about 178,000 people a month in Contra Costa and Solano counties; more recently, Castaneda said, that number has been 250,000 to 270,000 per month.

Along with the increases in the volume of food given away have been added complications in packaging the food for distribution, and in giving it to those who need it.

Both Castaneda and Altfest said their agencies are depending far more this year on “drive-through distribution” than ever before. These events involve cars pulling up to a station and having prepared boxes of various “shelf-stable” foods like canned foods, pasta and beans — with fresh produce as available — being put into their vehicles, with no direct contact with the recipients.

Castaneda said such events in Contra Costa and Solano counties, including Pittsburg, Vallejo and Fairfield, typically draw hundreds of people; a recent event in Richmond put food in more than 450 vehicles.

In Alameda County, Altfest said, regular drive-through events in Oakland, Pleasanton and Hayward have attracted as many as 1,000 vehicles (a fourth distribution site in Fremont has been turned over to other community partners, Altfest said.)

While the Oakland-based food bank leaned heavily on Alameda County employees being moved to food bank duty early in the pandemic, the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant effect on the Contra Costa-Solano facility’s largely volunteer work force.

There was a 30 percent drop in volunteerism in the pandemic’s early days, Castaneda said, and the situation has been up and down ever since.

“And yes, we are worried that these issues will come up again,” she said.

The Concord food bank has long since established COVID-19 protocols for its workers, including ample personal protective equipment, constant disinfecting, doing as much of the work outside as possible and making sure the main building is well-ventilated.

In Oakland, volunteers make up a larger share of Alameda County food bank workers now than several months ago, Altfest said. One group works together each Monday, another group each Tuesday, and so on, he said, helping minimize the potential spread of the coronavirus.

Fortunately for both food banks, supplies of food — including from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — have remained strong, as have local food donations.

But Altfest said that because of greater demand for food combined with more expensive food per pound, the Alameda County food bank is spending six times as much money for the food it buys than a year ago. “We’re spending more to ensure the shelves are stocked,” he said.

Castaneda said money donations are actually up this year from last, which has been a saving grace.

“We can do more with a dollar because we can buy truckloads of food,” she said.

One of the best sources of support for food banks, Castaneda said, is other food banks. But now, she said, they’re all in distress.

“We’re used to being in disaster situations, but not like this,” Castaneda said.

Both food banks are looking for volunteers now. For Alameda County, people can go to volunteer@accfb.org or call (510) 635-3663, ext. 308; those in Contra Costa or Solano counties can go to https://volunteer.foodbankccs.org/ or call (925) 676-7543 (Contra Costa) or (707) 421-9777 (Solano).