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Federal food program going away; pandemic-related hunger isn’t

With people still seeking help to feed their families in huge numbers, the operators of Orange County’s two food banks are uncertain how to meet the pandemic-fueled need once emergency federal food boxes stop coming Oct. 31.

In May, when the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture launched the Farmers to Families food box program, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue termed it a “win-win-win.” Hungry Americans would get fresh produce and other food via food distributors, while the nation’s farmers, whose crops otherwise would rot in the fields, also would get a boost. Nationally, about $4 billion has been spent helping organizations like Orange County Food Bank and Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County distribute fresh products.

But Perdue annnounced an end to the program last month, and unless there’s a new round of funding, the money will run out at the end of October. Local food bank operators say that could be horrible news for thousands of struggling families.

“This is the food cliff that we’ve been worried about,” said Mark Lowry, who oversees the Garden Grove-based Orange County Food Bank, which is run by the nonprofit Community Action Partnership of Orange County.

“We peer over the edge. And what we see isn’t pretty.”



Not going away

The USDA boxes — filled with fruits and vegetables, dairy and meat — have helped a lot of people eat this year.

Since March, when people began lining up in their cars to wait for hours at drive-through distribution sites, local demand has tripled. Food bank officials say that need remains, even with lower unemployment.

Lowry said more than half of the 30 million pounds of food Orange County Food Bank gave to people from April to August came from the food box program. Last week, he was busy writing letters to federal and local elected officials in a last-minute “Hail Mary” appeal. This week, he’s planning to work the phones.

“Nobody’s talking about it. It’s getting no attention. It’s getting no support.”

Harald Herrmann said his organization, Second Harvest, started to see a drop in USDA supply since July, and it’s now down about 80% from its peak. Second Harvest is moving on plans to distribute food without USDA help, relying on its own fundraising and donor revenue to reach a goal of at least $9 million between now and June. Herrmann foresees long-term needs that will stretch into late 2021. And, because of COVID-related interruptions at manufacturing plants, food costs have risen.

“If the federal support comes, we’re that much better off,” Herrmann said. “But we can’t wait for it to show up.”

In addition to asking the Trump Administration and members of Congress to continue funding the food box program, Lowry and  Herrmann want the county to consider a second infusion of cash from its share of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act dollars.

Earlier this year, the county awarded each food bank $1.5 million to help buy pre-packaged boxes of non-perishable food from other sources. The last of the food purchased with that money went out this month.

“We’re still in the eye of the storm,” Herrmann said.

“You don’t see the long lines of cars on TV, but the crisis is still underway.”

Middle class hunger

It’s true that the cameras and reporters that captured unprecedented scenes in parking lots of such places as the Honda Center and shuttered shopping malls in the early days of the pandemic aren’t tracking it so closely.

Lowry said that the Orange County Food Bank went from giving out an average of 2 million pounds of food a month between April and August of 2019 to what rose steadily during that same period this year to a whopping 6.8 million pounds.

“No time in 40 years have we ever surpassed that 2 million pounds per month,” Lowry said.

“It’s a shocking amount of food.”

There is a new face to food insecurity in Orange County these days. Families who were once solidly middle class and had never visited a food bank before are lining up for food in the year of Covid.

Stephen and Kristina Reifenstein and their daughter, Lilah Reifenstein, 5, at their home. The couple both lost work because of the pandemic and have been helped by local food distributions. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Kristina and Stephen Reifenstein of Orange are among them.  The couple has two young children, 5 and 2 1/2, a $3,500-a-month mortgage on a house they moved into in spring 2019, and car payments. Both also have been out of work since April.

Stephen Reifenstein, 44, was making a little over $100,000 doing project control and accounting for a mechanical construction company. He had been quarantining at home when his company contacted him April 2 on a Zoom call to tell him the next day would be his last. He had thought he’d escape the furloughs that had been announced. There was no severance, just his last week’s pay and seven vacation days.

By that time, the pandemic had already halted Kristina Reifenstein’s business teaching dance at preschools. And both Reifenstiens, whose backgrounds are in theater arts, also had to halt the play at a local high school that they direct every year.

“We just kind of hunkered down and rolled with it,” Stephen Reifenstein said, explaining that he was sure he’d find other work soon enough and made it his job to look for a job, virtually, eight hours a day. So far, he’s had no luck.

Unemployment, which he received right away and will continue through the end of the year, helped them get by. So did about six months of savings. The now-ended extra $600 unemployment benefit that was part of the CARES Act was another big boost. The Reifensteins also got forbearances on their mortgage and their car payment. As far as other bills, “what we can pay, we pay,” Kristina Reifenstein said.

They qualified for government-funded health insurance and CalFresh food benefits. They use some of what they have gotten to help out Kristina’s grandmother, who has dementia, and her brother, who has autism.

“I’m at a point now where I have no shame,” said Stephen Reifenstein, who has had a job of one kind or another since he was 15. “I’ve worked my butt off. And as long as this can help us, I’ll take it.”

They’ve also gotten the Farmers to Families food boxes and other assistance from Second Harvest. Stephen Reifenstein volunteered for all 15 weeks of the pop-up Honda Center drive-through distributions so he could repay what his family has been given. While there, he saw other people he knew who also sought help.

“We have a lot of friends in the arts who are not working,” said Kristina Reifenstein, 30.

The Reifensteins became part of a network of friends and acquaintances who swap goods and information about assistance.

“We’re all in it together,” Stephen Reifenstein said. “We’ll support each other as much as we can.”

That includes helping get the word out about Second Harvest and other food providers, like the local pantry at La Purisima Church they visit.

“If you need food now,” Stephen Reifenstein said, “they’ll give it to you.”

New providers

The long car lines have come as neighborhood, walk-up food pantries closed to prevent spread of the virus, and the volunteers sheltered at home. The county’s food distribution network is now partially restored, but lines at the neighborhood-level food giveaways remain long — and, in some cases, get longer as the weeks go by.

The Sikh Center of Orange County started a food pantry in May to provide groceries every week at its Warner Avenue gurdwara, or temple, in Santa Ana. On that first Saturday, about 650 people showed up — on foot and in their cars. Since then, it’s grown to about 1,000 a week who come in person. Mobile pantries have been added to serve about 2,000 others in Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside counties, said Bandana Singh, the Sikh Center’s food pantry director.

More than 70 volunteers, Sikhs and non-Sikhs, assist weekly. On the last Saturday in September the pantry served its 1 millionth meal.

“One million meals in this amount of time is not something to be happy about,” Singh said. “It just shows there’s a lot of work to be done.”

The weekly operation attracts so many people, who begin showing up in their cars as early as 6 a.m., that local police come to direct traffic. By 8:30 a.m. the line stretches a couple of miles, and the last person is typically served around noon.

“They’re so thankful,” Singh said. “Sometimes, you see tears in their eyes. They’ll hold up a sign that says ‘Thank You.’”

The food given away at the Sikh Center includes the USDA farm boxes. Volunteers have visited the wholesale produce market in Los Angeles in the middle of the night for its 1 a.m. opening or driven as far as Delano to pick up a truckload of citrus.

Even if the Farmers to Families program ends, the Sikh Center food pantry will continue, Singh said. “There’s still a lot of food insecurity … We hope to become a sustainable, more traditional food pantry after the pandemic is over.”

The question is, when will the pandemic-related hunger end?

“We really don’t know how long this is going to last,” Stephen Reifenstein said. “I’m just waiting for that job offer.”

Source: Orange County Register

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