Bay Area organizations make changes to address food and nutrition insecurity in the ‘next normal’

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“[W]e are the first responders right now and the essential workers, so people are really depending on us,” said Drene Johnson, the executive director at Community Action of Napa Valley. The coronavirus pandemic has put a strain on all kinds of vital resources, particularly food supplies, in the Bay Area. Community Action of Napa Valley is one of many organizations aiming to help those in need via several food-centric services.

To meet the growing need, organizations throughout the Bay Area and Stanford have stepped up. Managing food and produce has been a core aspect of the Stanford community’s volunteering efforts. The Farmlink project, spearheaded by students from Stanford and numerous other universities around the country, seeks to get excess produce to food banks. Another project, Stanford Roots, has shifted from volunteering to examining the overlap among food waste, coronavirus and the rights of agricultural workers.

Organizations off-campus have addressed food insecurity as well. Before the pandemic, Community Action of Napa Valley (CANV) offered programs for a wide range of ages, including child-care facilities at multiple locations in Napa Valley; Meals on Wheels, a program that tackles isolation and hunger among seniors; food pantries across Napa Valley; and the Brown Bag program, which delivers key ingredients with which seniors can cook.

Coronavirus has forced CANV to adjust these programs to ensure the community’s well-being and follow public health safety measures: the child-care facilities have only recently opened up with a reduced capacity; food is delivered to seniors instead of being served in-person; and food pantries have had to significantly increase their volume of food in response to the community’s increased need.

Fortunately, CANV has “had no problem” adapting to new conditions and challenges, Johnson said. The organization has been able to receive help from the National Guard, and Johnson credited her staff for handling the transition so well. Napa Valley has also endured multiple disasters and challenges, including earthquakes, fires and power outages, which still occur, according to Johnson. The Napa Valley community as a whole has been prepared for the pandemic. 

Redwood Empire Foodbank, another Bay Area organization, distributes food across five counties and serves over 100,000 people. Redwood Empire Foodbank has introduced a slew of changes in response to COVID-19 to protect the health of volunteers and those they serve, most notably reducing contact through longer hours and different handling procedures. In addition, they “have seen an average participant increase of 196% since COVID” — meaning they have naturally had to substantially supplement their aid, said Communications Associate Nicole Lorange.

Taking a different approach, Leah’s Pantry goes beyond food-centric services in its role within the Bay Area community. Its main types of services involve dietary health and trauma-informed care. It aims to influence the community at an individual level as well as a broader policy level.

Forming healthier dietary behaviors, especially among low-income families, is a key aspect of nearly all of the programs offered at Leah’s Pantry. Its main services are the Food Smarts Curriculum, which teaches nutrition and cooking classes to low-income families; Around the Table, a nutrition and cooking curricula that uses a trauma-informed approach; the Nutrition Pantry Program, which integrates trauma-informed procedures into pantry work; and EatFresh.org, a website with nutritional information and recipes for low-income families.

According to the CDC and the National Center for Trauma-Informed Care (NCTIC), the six main principles of trauma-informed care are safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support, collaboration and mutuality, empowerment and choice and cultural, historical and gender issues. As executive director of Leah’s Pantry Adrienne Markworth explained, trauma-informed care entails “really considering the effects that adversity may have had on people that we’re speaking with and being sensitive to that.”

Trauma-informed care provides a new lens to look at food through — it takes into account mental health in addition to physical health.

“It means reframing this whole concept of dietary health in a more holistic way that really takes a look at what are all the different components of food that are essential for a healthy body and a healthy mind,” Markworth said.

Leah’s Pantry aims to “promote adoption of trauma and nutrition security principles in county, state, and national policies and initiatives,” as their website states, as well as at private organizational levels. For example, Leah’s Pantry was involved in evaluating a food donation initiative in San Diego county and asked that the quality of food play an important role.

“So we invented the term ‘nutrition security,’ as opposed to ‘food security,’ to be used in the food donation action plan — so that anybody that read it would say, ‘Oh, the goal here is nutrition security.’ The goal is to provide nutritious food to those in need, not simply just to provide food of any caliber to those in need,” Markworth explained. Leah’s Pantry was even able to see some of their language be used in these large-scale initiatives as a result of these efforts.

The main changes Leah’s Pantry made in response to coronavirus were moving classes online, changing distribution and adapting to changes in inventory. To be flexible, Leah’s Pantry expanded and modified its range of services: it has helped other organizations bring their operations online, and there is a greater emphasis placed on mental health when serving the community.

These organizations, however, cannot continue to function during this time without the help of their communities. They agree that the best ways for community members to step up include donating time and resources, whether it be food or money.

Input from these organizations reveals the main way that local and state governments can help are through food assistance, whether it be through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or offering free school lunches to all kids — the turbulent economic times do not guarantee that a family that can support meals one day will be able to do the same the next day.

Even though these organizations and the Bay Area community at large have pivoted to adjust to the times, Markworth believes the battle is nowhere close to done.

“I’d say almost everything that I’m working on right now has been tweaked to be responsive to the time at hand while still trying to look toward the future,” Markworth said. “So we keep using the terminology; we have our ‘now normal,’ and we have our ‘next normal,’ but there is no going back. So what can we do now to set ourselves up for when we’re in this next normal?”

Contact Louis Chavey at louis ‘at’ chavey.org.

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Louis Chavey is a high schooler writing as part of the Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.