Henry, a volunteer, waits to fill a shopper’s order in front of two large boxes containing emergency food bags at the Berkeley Food Network. File photo: Pete Rosos

Mary Sabr is a 49-year-old South Berkeley resident in remission from cancer and living with a disability. This past year has delivered some unpleasant surprises – the necessary halt to family contact and a major increase in her gas-and-electric bill, for example – but one thing she could count on was grocery restocks from the Berkeley Food Pantry and other local food banks.

“To be honest, they give me so much food I can share it with my neighbors. It’s equivalent to, say, three Macy’s shopping bags of food” a month, she says.

It’s nutritious stuff, too, like vegetables, grains and poultry sourced from markets she doesn’t shop at for financial reasons. “With the income I receive from disability, I’m able to go to Trader Joe’s and buy groceries, no problem,” Sabr says. “I can’t afford Whole Foods. When I see items from Whole Foods it’s like, ‘Wow, this is really nice.’”

While there are many terrible pandemic narratives in the Bay Area, perhaps one of the good ones is how well food banks and pantries weathered the emergency. There was a period of uncertainty when COVID-19 first hit. Food organizations competed for the same scarce resources and faced disruptions in the supply chain. But most quickly adapted, and in some cases have become stronger and better prepared for the next crisis.

“This was probably the most challenging thing we’ve ever faced in 36 years of business,” says Michael Altfest, director of community engagement and marketing for the Alameda County Community Food Bank. “We had to grow immensely fast and we’re an entirely different food bank than we were a year and a half ago. We’ve increased our staff by 20 or so employees, and we’re putting out about twice the amount of food as before COVID.”

Unfortunately, an expanded customer base brings its own problems. Donations and volunteering surged during COVID. Now, food providers are worried about shriveling engagement as more and more people view the pandemic as having ended.

“The food programming is really not slowing down – the support is,” says Altfest. “If that maintains for a while, we will be in trouble.”

People eating their breakfast in the back parking lot entrance of the Dorothy Day House in March 2020. File photo: Pete Rosos

The Dorothy Day House in Berkeley provides basic services such as showers and meals to unhoused people. When the lockdown began, the organization found itself having to rapidly switch up operations. “We had to change from feeding people inside to everything to-go,” says Bob Whalen, procurement manager and volunteer coordinator. “It was just like the restaurants, the only difference being their guest counts went down whereas ours went up.”

Dorothy Day faced a swell of unhoused people who suddenly were locked out of inside spaces like libraries and senior centers. Fortunately, a new crop of youngsters and locals who had free time due to working from home or losing their jobs came to volunteer. “Almost to a person, they stepped in and filled those spaces within two weeks. It was pretty incredible to see that happen.”

The Berkeley Food Pantry helps provide groceries to food-insecure people in Berkeley, who number around 24,000, which equates to about a fifth of the city’s population (though the pantry also serves folks in Albany). The rate of people coming for food for the first time more than doubled as a new crowd of clientele started showing up.

“We did see more people you would think of as middle-class,” says pantry director Dharma Galang. “I think a lot of people had lost jobs. There were some who found themselves in a situation where they may have had savings, but they’d gone through the savings and came to us.”

Donations and volunteers also surged, though, and the pantry was able to grow its operations and add new services like at-home deliveries. Now it’s back to serving its more-traditional customer base of people who are disabled, working families with young children and university students. (Parents might be shocked to learn 39% of UC Berkeley undergrads experience food insecurity.)

Galang believes the pantry will have its hands full long after the pandemic winds down, thanks to the harsh nature of Bay Area housing. “People should really only [need to] come to us if they’re unemployed or if there’s something happening that’s out of control and it’s a one-time thing. COVID was a great example of that – it was an emergency,” she says. “But high housing prices are an ongoing issue that will never go away. It would be nice if the region figured it out so we wouldn’t be forced to serve people who really shouldn’t have to come to us.”

The Berkeley Food Network also saw a boom in business – going from feeding 1,600 clients a week in 2019 to about 5,000 today – partly due to beefed-up operations and partnering with other organizations during the crisis. But more customers means more expenses, and the organization is concerned about the months ahead.

“One of the big challenges we’re seeing is that although the Berkeley community was incredibly generous last year and a fair number of people have decided to provide us with regular donations, we are really not seeing the same level of support as we did last year,” says Sara Webber, the network’s executive director. “We need people to know we’re still feeding the same number of people and we would really welcome their participation as donors or volunteers, because it’s a pretty heavy lift.”

Sarah Palmer takes a delivery of frisee from Geoff Palla from the Edible Schoolyard for the Berkeley Food Network. File photo: Pete Rosos

Keeping pandemic-level support is “probably our biggest concern right now,” says Altfest of the Alameda food bank. The organization has gone from distributing roughly 2.7 million pounds of food a month in 2019 to about 5 million a month this year, which seems to be the new normal. 

Yet fundraising this April and May fell short by $14 million compared to the same period last year. That’s not great considering the reverberations from COVID will be felt for some time to come. “As the world is beginning to return to some bit of normalcy, we know that it’s going to be a much longer, steeper climb out of this for the communities we’re typically serving,” Altfest says. 

Many people have accrued incredible amounts of debt. And California food banks are holding their breath seeing what will happen if the eviction moratorium ends this year. Approximately 810,000 households in the state owe an average of $4,400 in unpaid rent, according to the National Equity Atlas.

“Knowing what California looks like, that’s going to be a lot higher here in the Bay Area,” says Altfest. “What typically happens in a working household is it’s forced to make pretty awful decisions. People are going to keep a roof over their heads, they’re going to keep gas in their car to get to work, and keep the lights on in their house.

“Food is the first and easiest place for people to cut, usually. That’s where we can come in and make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Here’s advice about giving away surplus food in your pantry. You can donate to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, the Berkeley Food Pantry, Dorothy Day House and the Berkeley Food Network.

John Metcalfe is an Oakland-based freelance reporter who's written for Berkeleyside, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Atlantic. He enjoys covering science, climate and weather, and urban...