food bag
A bag of food from Second Harvest.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Pandemic Life

The need ‘keeps growing’: Volunteers to feed the hungry remain in high demand as holidays draw closer

With so many still reeling from the COVID pandemic, charities, food banks, and other volunteer organizations are seeing increased demand for their services but not enough volunteers.

It’s the giving season in Santa Cruz, and local advocates for those facing hunger and homelessness say there is a tremendous need for more givers.

As the cost of living continues to rise , there are many people experiencing joblessness, homelessness and poverty amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs, said the need for his organization’s services — and the volunteers that keep it going — is extremely high. He has been working with the group for more than four decades.

“We can use more volunteers this Thanksgiving and Christmas, in part because a lot of students who often volunteer go home for the holidays,” he said. “And the number of people in need keeps growing.”

McHenry said he is continuously surprised at the amount of people in need.

Keith McHenry of Food Not Bombs makes himself heard to those who gathered outside Santa Cruz City Hall.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We’re seeing 50 or even 100 more people a day than in October,” he said. “Our dumpsters get picked up every Monday, and they had twice as many used paper plates and twice as many empty cans of coffee. It’s incredible.”

The need only seems to be growing, said McHenry.

“Of the core membership, it used to be around two-thirds housed and one-third unhoused. Now it’s close to 50/50,” he said, adding that the organization expects a doubling of unhoused people in Santa Cruz this winter. “We’re heading into a period more intense than the Great Depression. I think potentially it already is like that.”

As time goes on, McHenry and the rest of the Food Not Bombs organizers are going to continue to need more food and more volunteers.

“We’re gearing up. We can use tons more volunteers so we can cook outside as well as in the kitchen and many more hours,” he said. “We’re also going to have to figure out ways to get even larger amounts of food.”

Many orgs ‘have declined in volunteers’

Jael Salinas, who manages the volunteer program for the Second Harvest Food Bank in Watsonville, said her organization also needs help.

“Packing and sorting food is where we definitely need more volunteers,” she said, adding that they are serving around 75,000 people monthly compared to about 55,000 pre-COVID. “If we’re feeding more people, that means we’re sourcing more food and it all needs to be packaged and delivered.”

Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County temporary employees pack boxes of food for the needy. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

According to Salinas, the pandemic has not just increased the number of people in need, but has also affected the volunteer pool.

“I would say a lot of food banks and other nonprofit organizations have declined in volunteers,” she said. “We speak with colleagues weekly or monthly and talk about trends and ways to recruit more volunteers.”

Salinas said many of their farmworker clients are unable to work during the holidays, making their needs that much greater.

“We are a migrant community here in Watsonville and many migrant workers stop working during the holidays which means they’re not receiving income,” she said. “That’s kind of a normal trend but I’m pretty sure because of COVID that increase is larger than normal.”

While Second Harvest needs more help, Salinas said she is pleased with the support the group gets from the community.

“We’re community-driven and community-supported, so a lot of the things that we’re able to do are because of the generosity of Santa Cruz County residents,” she said. “Although there is a huge need for food we also see a lot of donations from the community.”

‘Really generous community’ but more need

Karen Delaney, executive director of the Santa Cruz Volunteer Center, agrees, but stresses that the work is ongoing.

“We live in a really generous community. We saw a huge surge during the fires and with COVID,” she said. “There’s still some big challenges in the economy and lots of folks who need help.”

Delaney also said that COVID has brought forth a new kind of volunteering, and a shift in services provided by many organizations around the county.

“Some mass public events may not be happening in the same way due to public health concerns, so what we’re seeing is a lot more requests for people to help deliver food or do drive-thru volunteering,” she said. “The interest is there and we’re continuing to use our website and social media to make it easier to navigate.”

Delaney added that there are many places to volunteer around the county that need help, and that any time that people can give it goes a long way.

“There are about 80 food pantries throughout the county and they’re all looking for people. They’d like to be able to step up and have more deliveries,” she said. “Rather than going to work at something like a big Thanksgiving or other gathering you can show up at a pantry nearby and help get food to the hungry from there.”

In the face of COVID, high rates of homelessness, and lack of food, Delaney believes that more volunteering will bring the community together in a unique way and rally around the issues that pervade the county.

“We live in a beautiful community. Is there really a need for people to go to bed hungry? Do people need to be cold? When we’re thinking of giving, we should direct our attention to the problems we don’t have to wait to solve,” she said. “There are many opportunities for us to do things that we’re thinking about, but we can tweak them to give them this really transformative meaning. That’s a simple thing that anyone can do.”