A line of cars stretched through the parking lot of the Mountain View Senior Center on Tuesday morning, drivers waiting patiently for boxes of fresh produce, milk, eggs, canned goods and chicken to be placed in their trunks by masked volunteers.
One young mother left quickly to prepare food for her baby, while two older women filled shopping carts with free food so they wouldn't have to spend money at the grocery store this month. Jose Quijano, who has been out of work since March 16, was picking up free groceries for the fifth time.
They are among the half million people in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties now relying on Second Harvest of Silicon Valley for food assistance during the pandemic.
Since the coronavirus hit the Bay Area, ushering in a shutdown that's ravaging local businesses and spiking unemployment, Second Harvest Food Bank has seen an astronomical rise in demand. The nonprofit went from serving about 270,000 people a month to 500,000 — an 85% increase.
Second Harvest expects to distribute 12 million pounds of food this month. Pre-pandemic, 6 million pounds in a month would have been a milestone.
The nonprofit's phone hotline has fielded as many as 1,200 calls a day, many from people looking for food assistance for the first time.
Second Harvest CEO Leslie Bacho, who led the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank through the Great Recession in 2008, said the almost overnight, dramatic increase in need is "unprecedented."
"You suddenly have so many people who just a week ago thought they were pretty financially secure," she said. It's hard "to suddenly be out of work and really worried about: Are you going to be able to keep your housing? Are you going to be able to find food for your family?"
The coronavirus also forced Second Harvest to dramatically transform its operations. Farmers market-style distribution sites had to be reconfigured into socially distanced drive-thrus to prevent the spread of the virus.
They started delivering food to thousands of homebound low-income seniors. They stopped accepting canned food donations from the community.
With most volunteers — who made up 40% of Second Harvest's workforce — unable to come in during the shelter-in-place, the nonprofit relied on the United States Army National Guard, temporary workers and staff from partner agencies to sort and package food.
"Everything changed overnight," Second Harvest spokesperson Diane Baker Hayward said.
Three months after the Bay Area started sheltering at home, demand for food has not let up — and Second Harvest expects the need to continue for more than a year.
To illustrate a day in the life of a food bank during COVID-19, an Embarcadero Media journalist and photojournalist spent a day at Second Harvest, following the critical lifeline of food as it made its way from boxes in warehouses to the hands of needy families.
Shortly after dawn, masked workers start their shifts at Second Harvest's largest warehouse. The 75,000-square-foot Cypress Center in San Jose stores mostly fresh produce: bags of onions and carrots, boxes of melons, oranges, broccoli, corn and celery. Meat is kept in a separate, chilled room — storage that helped Second Harvest make it through an initial meat shortage at the start of the shutdown, Baker Hayward said.
Signage throughout the warehouse reminds workers to stay 6 feet apart, to wipe down machines after every use and to wash their hands for 20 seconds. A table at the entrance to the warehouse is set with masks, hand sanitizer and a thermometer.
The workers deftly steer forklifts in and out of rows of boxed produce, stacking pallets of cardboard boxes in trucks parked in a dock outside. The trucks later head throughout the Bay Area to a network of more than 300 partner agencies — schools, senior centers, churches and shelters — with 1,000 distribution sites.
This warehouse — one of four that Second Harvest operates, including a new, 40,000 square-foot temporary space added in April to meet the current demand — also stores food provided by the federal government through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). Second Harvest receives an average of 27,000 boxes of food per week from the government. This helps relieve some of the supply burden for Second Harvest, said Sarah Howard, a produce sourcing and quality manager who early on Tuesday morning was climbing a ladder to check boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables for mold.
Her job of managing the flow of food in accordance with demand has taken on new pressure during the pandemic, she said. At the start of the shutdown, many Second Harvest distribution sites initially closed. After some reopened, it took a few weeks for word to spread and for people to know where to go if they needed food, making it hard for the nonprofit to predict how much food to send to sites.
A truck full of food from the San Jose warehouse arrives at the Mountain View Senior Center on Escuela Avenue. The site normally only serves low-income seniors but during the pandemic has been open twice a week to anyone in need. Staff members are continuing to see new people come each time, which is unusual, they say.
Pre-pandemic, Second Harvest modeled its distribution sites after farmers markets, allowing people to see and choose their produce. This helped to preserve a sense of dignity and normalcy, as well as community, Second Harvest staff said. The sites became hubs where people connected with one another and found resources for other support they needed. Volunteers got to know regular visitors by name. Many visitors became volunteers themselves.
Now, families quickly pass through in their cars to pick up the pre-packaged boxes: one with a selection of fruits and vegetables and another with dairy and items like tortillas, beans and peanut butter, plus a bag of meat.
As a warehouse worker unloads boxes in the back parking lot, a group of about 17 volunteers wash their hands, put on gloves and gather for a brief orientation.
"The most important thing is we treat our members with dignity and respect," Janice Soderberg, the volunteer leader for the Mountain View site, tells the group.
Also important, she tells them, is putting on new gloves any time they touch their faces or phones.
"As restrictions loosen, I actually think people are more vulnerable," Soderberg said. "We don't want to ease up. We need to be as careful as we've always been."
The volunteers split into groups of three. To minimize contact, as cars drive through, one person talks to the driver (many in Mandarin or Spanish), another opens the trunk and a third puts the boxes in the car.
On the other side of the parking lot, delivery drivers start filling their cars with boxes to bring to about 120 Mountain View residents. Since March, Second Harvest has rapidly expanded what was a limited home delivery service to now reach upwards of 6,000 people.
By 9 a.m., a line of cars forms in the parking lot. People without a car go to a walk-up area, where they unpack boxes and put the food, cartons of milk and eggs into their own bags. One man uses a children's stroller to transport his food; another woman, a large grocery store shopping cart.
Ines Varela, a longtime Mountain View resident, said she's come to the senior center for food for several years. She's also a regular Second Harvest volunteer. She said the fresh food has been a big help during the coronavirus shutdown. A typical Second Harvest recipient gets $245 worth of free groceries every month.
"The food is good," she said in Spanish. "Everything they give us here is very good."
Bernard Cabute went through the drive-through to pick up food for his 70-year-old mother, who was sitting in the backseat of the car.
"They're helping her out a lot," he said of Second Harvest. "It's making her really healthy, too. She's eating a lot of vegetables, healthy food."
The Mountain View site typically serves about 250 people; it's also a location that's continuing to see a rise in numbers, Second Harvest said.
In a back corner of Second Harvest's Curtner warehouse in San Jose, a well-oiled assembly line of National Guard service members in army fatigues packs boxes of food that will feed a family of four for two weeks.
National Guard members who usually volunteer once a weekend, in addition to having full-time jobs, have been sorting and packaging food full time for three months. In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom deployed nearly 500 service members to food banks across six Bay Area counties on a humanitarian support mission.
Battling food insecurity during a public health crisis is a first-of-a-kind deployment for this particular unit. The 129th Rescue Wing, which is based at Moffett Field in Mountain View, is usually activated for search and rescue missions.
"We're here to support the state of California," said Major Alfred Tamayo, who works in sales in the semiconductor industry. "Being able to do this humanitarian support for our local community is even better."
He oversees a team of about 37 National Guard members at the warehouse during the day and 15 more during a swing shift. They assemble up to 250,000 pounds of food a day for distribution, Tamayo said. On Monday, they sent out 10,000 boxes.
Some of the service members got called away recently to provide crowd control at the Black Lives Matter protests, but they're continuing to fill in at Second Harvest as the nonprofit works to rebuild its volunteer base.
On the second floor of the Curtner warehouse on Tuesday, a handful of employees sitting in cubicles are taking calls coming into Second Harvest's Food Connection hotline.
In late March, their phones were ringing off the hook with as many as 1,200 calls a day — 12 times the normal amount. Several National Guard service members who speak Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog and Vietnamese moved upstairs to help with translation.
Claribel Chavez, a Food Connection coordinator for Second Harvest, said the calls were emotional and taxing. It was like listening to people work through the five stages of grief, she said. She talked to people who were in shock at losing their jobs. Many felt ashamed, never having needed food assistance before. Others took their stress out on her and other staff.
"One morning you'd get someone angry, someone who was worried, somebody crying because they lost their job, who didn't have money for their rent ... and then you'd get the clients who were just so overwhelmed with joy because they got a box of food," Chavez said.
A former Second Harvest recipient, Chavez saw herself in many of their stories.
"I've been there before. I encourage other people, 'It's not always going to be like this. You're not always going to be struggling,'" she said.
The hotline now receives about 250 calls a day. The staff and volunteers answer questions about where to get food, help people apply for the state's CalFresh food-assistance program and assure them that they have access to free groceries regardless of their income and citizenship status.
The Food Connection hotline is open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., by calling 1-800-984-3663.
Volunteers are the backbone of Second Harvest. The majority of volunteers — large corporate groups and seniors — all but disappeared when shelter order began in late March.
But volunteers, both veterans and first timers, have since started to come back. They're now trained and consolidated in a single location, the Cypress Center.
Mary Ellen Carter said she started volunteering during the shutdown.
"It's such a great need right now," she said. "It's good to give back in whatever way you can, not only monetary but with your time."
On Tuesday afternoon, she and other volunteers fill the San Jose warehouse in socially distanced groups, bagging frozen chicken to go out to distribution sites. They're joined by the 144th Fighter Wing National Guard group from Fresno.
Cat Cvengros, Second Harvest's vice president of marketing, said the organization is now grappling with its short- and long-term future. Even the shift to boxes requires an enormous human investment that will be difficult to sustain, but returning to the high-touch farmers market concept doesn't feel safe yet. When the National Guard leaves, Second Harvest will have to backfill with more and longer volunteer shifts. And she doesn't expect the demand to drop any time soon.
"It's a crisis," Cvengros said. "We don't even know what the next month looks like. As people continue to deplete their savings, we will see our numbers rise."
On Tuesday afternoon, a masked Leslie Bacho sits in her office, a few steps away from the volunteers and National Guard, preparing for a Zoom board meeting later that afternoon. Second Harvest's leadership is now working through its greatest challenge: how to sustain the unprecedented demand.
"For now we're just trying to bring in the resources we can to meet this very immediate need, but it's going to be an immediate need for probably the next 12 to 18 months," she said.
The organization's expenses have also shot up dramatically — food expenses were up over 140% of the budgeted amount in April, not including additional spending on staff or cleaning and PPE supplies — though donations have remained strong during the pandemic.
For Bacho, who has worked in food banks for more than two decades, the coronavirus has thrown into sharp relief an already deep food insecurity crisis in Silicon Valley. The root causes of that crisis — housing costs, wage disparity, the steep challenges of making a living wage in the region — will remain after the public health concerns fade, she said.
"We already had so many people who were working and still really not earning a wage that made it possible for them to also be able to support their families or support themselves. Now, even when people start to go back to work, it's going to be a long time before people really recover from this kind of economic devastation," she said. "It's going to take a long time to get back to a financially stable place."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.