For some, the coronavirus pandemic has been nothing more than a mild inconvenience. For others, the change has been devastating.
Outside of medical communities, some of those hit the hardest by COVID-19 have been people who have lost their jobs due to government restrictions. Across Kern County, local food banks report surging demand, with many using their services for the first time.
“Think about all the salons. They’ve been out for how many weeks now? That’s absolutely no income,” said Crissy Cochran, public relations director for CityServe, a faith-based charity headquartered in Bakersfield that provides aid in several states. “They’re having to decide right now, do they pay for rent or do they pay for food.”
Across the United States, more and more people who have never had the need for donated food have been turning to food banks for support. With an unemployment level of 16.5 percent as of July, scores of county residents who previously provided for themselves no longer have the means to put food on the table.
“You see minivans, and you see the suburbanites, the moms,” Cochran said. “They thought they would never be in line to get help.”
Kern County was already vulnerable to a surge in hunger. Before the pandemic, Kern County Public Health Services said Bakersfield ranked No. 1 in the United States in terms of most people in a metropolitan area who couldn’t afford to buy the food they need, with a quarter of children going to bed hungry every night.
Projections from Feeding America show the problem appears to have gotten worse in 2020. A study by the charity showed the overall food insecurity rate in Kern County is projected to have increased to 19.9 percent in 2020, which would be a 5.6 percent increase compared to 2018.
Community Action Partnership of Kern reports its distribution centers are seeing 20 percent increases in demand.
“We saw it happen in the beginning, when all this started, but when stores started opening, we saw it drop just a little bit,” said Jaime Orona, program manager for the food bank at CAPK. “But now, everything has been shut for a good six or seven weeks and we’re seeing rise up again.”
While distribution centers have sometimes run out of food, he said food supply was mostly not an issue. What has been a problem for CAPK has been the volunteers, who have been difficult to come by now that concerns over social distancing have become prevalent.
“We’ve been going about this already going close to three months where everybody comes together to try to make things happen,” Orona said. “There’s a lot behind the scenes that we do that nobody’s aware of.”
Those interested in volunteering can visit capk.org for more information.
Despite the challenges, food pantry organizers say the community has rallied in support of its most needy in a testament to the generosity of Kern County residents.
“The community of Delano, we are one united community. If a family has a little extra, they are willing to bless someone else,” said Claribel Guitierrez, who organizes a food bank in Delano. “We play together and we help each other.”
She said the increase in demand for food supplies has been met with an increase in donations. The outpouring of support gives her hope that her community will see it through the pandemic.
“There is a problem yes, but are we going to survive? Yes,” she said. “We’ve just got to find different ways of going about it, and making sure that we work together as a whole to help each other.”