Finding the light at the end of the tunnel in Ventura County.
Founded in 1978, Food Share of Ventura County is the largest hunger relief organization in Ventura County. Food Share collects, stores, and distributes millions of pounds of food annually to community partners such as food pantries, homeless shelters, and hot meal sites that work directly with people in need. Food Share also provides food direct, via programs like Senior Kit and Kids’ Farmers’ Market and, since the onset of COVID-19, has been distributing food at hundreds of emergency drive-thru distributions across the county.
Food insecurity defined
Food insecurity means that a person doesn’t have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Often, it’s not obvious when someone is going hungry, but with 1 in 6 people in Ventura County experiencing food insecurity, the face of hunger may not be exactly who you expect.
Who experiences food insecurity?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the families Food Share served would need supplemental food perhaps two-three times a year. There’s a perception that food banks only feed the homeless, but the reality is that the vast majority of the people seeking assistance are working families – people who are employed but in low-income jobs and often living expense to expense.
To give some context, the median salary for a full-time minimum wage employee in Ventura County is approximately $31,200 a year. After taxes, take home pay is less than $2,000 a month. Even if two or more people in a household are working, if it’s in a low-wage job that’s still very little to live on in Southern California. One unexpected expense like a visit to the emergency room or a car repair bill can be the difference between putting food on the table that month or paying rent.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food insecurity in Ventura County
As an organization, Food Share exists to help people who are going through difficult times – hunger, after all, is a disaster for any individual who has to experience it, regardless of the cause. When we’re hit by disasters such as fires or this pandemic, it raises the awareness of hunger that exists every day for thousands of our friends and neighbors.
With increased rates of unemployment and underemployment from reduced hours, the pandemic has worsened the hunger problem significantly. Food Share has seen an unprecedented rise in need in addition to the 75,000 people the organization typically serves on a monthly basis. Latest estimates suggest the number is closer to 150,000 as low-income families in our community have borne the full brunt of the layoffs and reduced hours in all sectors. Many are seeking food assistance for the very first time.
In addition to those employees in the service and hospitality sectors, Food Share has also seen an increased need among Ventura County’s 43,000 farm workers, many of whom have had their hours cut as the demand for fresh produce from schools, restaurants and entertainment venues has depleted.
How Food Share is meeting the increased need
Food Share distributed 25 million pounds of food in 2020; a record amount for the food bank. It takes over 2500 volunteers and a solid infrastructure to accomplish that feat, which also brings a fair share of challenges. Food Share has had to raise more funds to purchase more truckloads of food, find more volunteers to distribute it, plus find more storage as we prepare it for distribution.
To further compound the issue of food insecurity, at the beginning of the pandemic nearly 25% of Food Share’s network of pantry partners were forced to close due to their reliance on older volunteers. This left a large gap in available resources exactly at the time when people needed food most. Food Share has responded by holding more than 360 drive-thru emergency food distributions in locations all over Ventura County.
Amidst all the disaster response, Food Share’s first mobile app was launched for both the iPhone and Android platforms. The app has been a game changer in helping reach even more people who need food assistance. A free download of the app allows anyone to use the “Find Food Now” search function which displays all open food distributions within a 5 – 10 – 20 or 30 mile radius of their current location.
The long-term view
It’s difficult to accept the fact we’re not going to see a significant drop in demand for food in the foreseeable future, but experience from previous local disasters such the Thomas and Woolsey/Hill fires shows that recovery takes time and the impact from this pandemic runs even deeper.
At this moment in 2021, a record number of people in Ventura County are still out of work or trying to regain their footing after a loss of hours worked and income. Even with retail establishments starting to open up and more jobs being offered, many are dealing with underemployment which seriously impacts their ability to build financial stability. Until the pandemic is truly over and the economy starts to recover, Food Share will continue to feed the thousands of people in need for many months or even years to come.