Bay Area low-income seniors struggle to access food during coronavirus

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Before the coronavirus, low-income seniors in the Bay Area would gather for lunch or breakfast at a community hall or pick up bags of groceries at senior centers and other food pantries. But with the state’s orders that all seniors over age 65 stay at home, service providers are having to quickly figure out how to get food to the most vulnerable population.

Anni Chung, CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly, used to operate 15 congregate meal sites in San Francisco and San Mateo, where 1,000 seniors would get a nutritious meal and some much-needed socialization every day. After the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order, all of those meal sites closed.

Chung had to quickly transition to delivery — Self-Help is now driving about 1,000 meals to seniors in San Francisco every day, with 400 more on the waiting list. She turned senior center kitchens into packing hubs, recruited volunteer drivers and drafted routes.

“We need a lot of manpower to keep up,” Chung said. “We can’t stop feeding people. For a lot of our seniors, that’s their only hot nutritious meal for the day.”

It’s not just the congregate meal sites. Food banks, food pantries, grocery delivery programs and Meals on Wheels are all seeing skyrocketing demand for their services. But just as the need mounts, local organizations are losing out on one of the biggest sources of volunteer labor: retirees, who are also being instructed to stay at home.

“Every single food access point is facing unprecedented pressure,” said Kim McCoy Wade, director of the California Department of Aging. “How do we redesign our charitable food systems? How do we partner in new and different ways?”

Michael Altfest of the Alameda County Community Food Bank said his organization is working furiously to purchase more food, get it out faster and expand distribution. Over the past week, the food bank has received 50% more calls from seniors than usual.

“The people who are going to be impacted most by this over the long term are the people we are serving,” Altfest said. “It’s vulnerable seniors who depend on our groceries to stay healthy. If someone doesn’t have adequate nutrition, that’s going to impact their immune systems.”

One reason for the rise in calls could be because low-income seniors who would normally buy groceries with CalFresh, the state’s version of food stamps, are currently required to visit stores in person — McCoy said the state is working to allow online grocery options. Meanwhile, since the shelter-in-place orders were enacted, nearly 30 food pantries have closed in San Francisco, and 19 in Silicon Valley, according to Calmatters.

That’s why the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank asked Harvest Food Pantry, located at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in the Inner Richmond, to expand beyond serving just people who live in the neighborhood. Before the coronavirus outbreak, 250 families would come each Sunday. After shelter in place, that number dropped to 144. Pastor Theresa Cho said a lot of the pantry’s regulars are seniors, who are likely staying at home.

“I think people were scared to come out, and they were uncertain if we were even open,” said Cho, who tweaked the pantry’s operations to maintain social distancing.

The coronavirus brought even more dramatic changes to Elder Care Alliance’s Mercy Brown Bag Program, which distributes bags of groceries to 5,000 seniors at designated locations in Alameda County. One thousand individuals who normally travel to Mercy’s drop-off locations suddenly required their own deliveries, and since shelter in place, more than 200 new people have requested services.

“Our phone is ringing off the hook,” said program director Krista Lucchesi.

Between now and April 7 — the scheduled end of shelter in place — Mercy needs 175 volunteers to pack grocery bags and deliver them. Similarly, every time Self-Help adds another 300 seniors to its list, the organization needs 20 more volunteers per day. Recruiting enough people during a pandemic will be their biggest challenge, especially because both organizations typically rely on a pool of volunteers of retirement age who are also instructed to stay home.

“A big part of the anti-hunger emergency food safety net traditionally has been run by people who are older,” said Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “All the programs, church pantries, soup kitchens are staffed by volunteers who are now being told to stay home. There is a real crumbling of the natural infrastructure of California anti-hunger assistance programs.”

The Department of Aging is exploring partnerships with private delivery companies to see if they could add meals for low-income seniors to their normal routes, according to Wade. She also anticipates services like Meals on Wheels to roll out frozen meals, so volunteers can deliver more food with fewer trips.

More Information

The news these days can be sobering, even grim. There’s a lot of uncertainty and discomfort most everywhere you look. But amid the darkness, there are rays of light: young people helping older neighbors, musicians and fitness coaches offering their talents online, neighbors having outdoor dance parties (using proper social distancing). We’d like to know about examples of good news you have witnessed during this time. You can tell us your thoughts online at SFChronicle.com by using our Assignment Editor tool, or send an email (which can include a photo) with the subject line “Good News” to: metro@sfchronicle.com.

Each Bay Area county (or in some cases, a pair of counties) has a central food bank that works with community agencies — churches, schools, nonprofits — to supply food to smaller pantries. Contact your local food bank to find out how and where to get food. You may have to supply your name and ZIP code.

Alameda County Community Food Bank. https://www.accfb.org/get-food. 510-635-3663.

Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano. www.foodbankccs.org. 855-309-3663.

Napa Valley Food Bank. www.canv.org. 707-253-6128.

Santa Clara and San Mateo counties: Second Harvest Food Bank. www.shfb.org. 800-984-3663.

San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. www.sfmfoodbank.org. 415-282-1900.

Sonoma County: Redwood Empire Food Bank. www.refb.org. 707-523-7903.

Self-Help’s Chung is already considering frozen food, but she’s staying optimistic that she’ll recruit enough volunteers to meet demand.

“I have faith in people wanting to help with the crisis,” she said.

Chronicle staff writer Carolyn Said contributed to this report.

Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: janelle.bitker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @janellebitker

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