Volunteers Stephanie, Holden, Lena and Will go through deliveries of food as part of the Berkeley Food Network’s food rescue program. Photo: Pete Rosos

A $600,000 grant to the Berkeley Food Network and Alameda County Community Food Bank from the Bayer Fund will expand distribution sites and help fulfill increased need for food-insecure residents during the coronavirus pandemic.

The grant was announced Tuesday from the Bayer Fund, the Berkeley-based philanthropic arm of the German pharmaceutical company Bayer. Sara Webber, co-founder and executive director of BFN, called the grant “game-changing,” and said the organization will receive $150,000 a year for two years.

The remaining $300,000 will be for ACCFB, which will use $200,000 for food purchasing and $100,000 earmarked specifically for emergency operations during the pandemic.

The funds for BFN will allow the organization to hire a full-time director of operations to oversee inventory and warehouse operations, including a new distribution site scheduled to open in fall that will increase food pickup access for several of its partner organizations, which currently rely on delivery. 

“It’s our biggest single grant that we’ll be able to put into our programming — it really is game-changing I think, it will allow us to build up our infrastructure so well,” Webber said. 

BFN will also purchase a new van for pickup and delivery to its smaller partners, including Berkeley Unified School District sites, lease a battery-operated forklift, pay for inventory, billing software and other equipment and supplies. While the organization typically feeds 6,000 households a month, this number has jumped to 18,000 monthly after the pandemic began. Webber said 9,000 households have already accessed the services this month, and she doesn’t see the number slowing down anytime soon.

Berkeley Food Network volunteer Mickey looks over cases of food ready to be put together for meal kits. Since the pandemic started, BFN has seen a huge uptick in the number of clients it serves. Photo: Pete Rosos

ACCFB, which purchases food for BFN and roughly 350 partner agencies throughout Alameda County, has also encountered a sharp uptick in need and food insecurity. Its food costs averaged between $600,000 to $700,000 between April and June last year, according to Michael Altfest, spokesperson for the food bank. That number is now at $2 million this year, and calls to the emergency food helpline are stabilizing after jumping 1000% right after shelter-in-place orders came down.

“Around 40-50% of the callers, a day, are still first-time callers. We know we’re serving a very significant uptick in need, so this funding, especially right now, is going to make sure that we do have the resources to [serve them],” Altfest said.

The grant funding will also help ACCFB and its partner agencies keep up with this need well into the future.

“In an ideal world the need will go down, but, realistically, what we know from past emergencies is that it’s gonna take a long time for people who are impacted most by this to get back on their feet,” Altfest said, mentioning that the people who currently access the food bank — including low-income residents, people of color and vulnerable seniors — are likely to have continued or increased need for the services. 

Bayer is Berkeley’s largest private-sector employer. The company’s senior vice president Jens Vogel said the grant is intended to meet needs and encourage innovation in addressing food insecurity and nutrition. Mayor Jesse Arreguín also lauded the public-private partnership to address residents’ needs during the pandemic. 

“The collaboration between the Food Bank and the Berkeley Food Network to increase access to quality nutrition is needed now more than ever,” Arreguín said in a statement. “This is the second time that Bayer has stepped forward to help address the impact of this pandemic locally and we’re proud to have them as a member of our business community.”

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...