Images of grocery stores with row after row of food-depleted shelves largely due to panic induced hoarding over the coronavirus pandemic are a fixture in the news and on social media. For people who couldn’t afford to buy enough food to feed themselves or their family to begin with, the anxiety is two-fold. The SLO Food Bank is working to ensure continuity of service and to set up additional food distributions to meet expected demands.

“Frankly, right now we’re in very uncharted waters,” said SLO Food Bank Director of Operations Tim Parker. “Folks that have never needed our services before are beginning to reach out for them. We obviously have a segment of the population that’s newly homebound, so similarly, they’re reaching out and not really clear on what they can do.”

Typically the Food Banks provides distributes food to more than 30,000 individuals per month in San Luis Obispo County in partnership with more than 77 nonprofit partners ranging from food pantries to meal sites. With the recent shelter in home and temporary closure of many businesses, that need is expected to increase—possibly dramatically.

Because it is considered an essential service the Food Bank can continue operations, but changes have been made.

“As a safety precaution, one of the things we’re doing is pre-bagging any food that goes out to public distribution,” Parker said. “We like to offer more of a farmers’ market style where people can go through and choose the produce they need, but that’s just going to add to the time that people are closely spaced to one another.”

Additionally, the warehouse and office space is restricted to volunteers who have to RSVP before coming in to pick up supplies. Those that are handling food, dry goods or produce both in the warehouse or out in the field are required to wear disposable gloves at all times.

“Thankfully, our warehouse is about 18,000 square feet,” Parker said. “We’ve got three sort of assembly lines set up right now; one for fresh produce, and then a couple for different types of dry goods. That allows us to get several volunteers and staff together but still observe about six feet of spacing.”One area that the Food Bank did temporarily shut down is SLO Glean, the local food rescue arm of the operation that calls on volunteers to harvest local crops either from farmer’s fields or neighborhood backyards.

“If it is a lesser, in terms of quantity, supply stream that we’re bringing in, we’re willing to curtail that right now so that we can focus on getting food out the door instead,” Parker said. “Gleans are a really popular way for volunteering, but that’s just yet another instance of inviting people to kind of share a common space, and we’re looking to reduce that wherever we can.”

Community food drives are always an important part of operating any food bank, but monetary donations are very much needed now. In fact, the organizations is asking people not to give food donations at this time to avoid nonessential travel.

“The most effective way to support us right now is a monetary donation,” Parker said. “We’re doing things like burning a lot of overtime, we’re buying a ton of different, extra sanitation supplies and cleaning supplies. Thankfully, we are in a position where we’re sitting on a fair amount of food inventory at the moment, but 75% of our financial support each year comes from local donors. So, to the extent that the community wants to empower the Food Bank to be here, that’s really going to be a need that continues for us to proceed.”

Volunteers are an essential part of operations at the Food Bank, and most have thus far stayed on.

“Fortunately for us, we’re still seeing interest in volunteering,” said Parker. “We do need extra volunteers at the warehouse because we’re bagging all of our produce, we’re bagging all of our dry goods, so that we can really expediently give it to folks and let them move through our distribution sites quickly.”

That said, there is always a need for more people willing to help pack bags of fresh produce and bags of shelf-stable items for food distributions. Volunteers must be 16 years or older, show no signs of respiratory illness and follow all recommended guidelines to reduce the contact with and/or spread of COVID-19.

To make a donation, find out more about volunteering or for location distribution sites and times, go to slofoodbank.org or call them at 805-238-4664.