Tomas Vega drove all the way from western Kern County to Bakersfield early Friday morning to get to CityServe on time.
The precious cargo Vega was seeking included dozens of boxes filled with that most basic of human needs:
"It's a blessing. I thank God for CityServe," said Vega, the pastor at Templo Agua Viva, a church in Taft. "Our people are hurting. Every community around Bakersfield is hurting."
His was just one of dozens of pickups, vans and trailers that waited in a long line early Friday morning at CityServe Kern County's F Street location to load up 30 food boxes — out of more than 1,200 that had arrived from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
"Having the opportunity to receive and distribute these beautiful boxes of food through Farmers to Families is an incredible opportunity to bless the community," said Robin Robinson, CityServe's community development & church engagement director.
Local churches, she said, are the perfect vehicle to help faith-based CityServe and its partners reach deep into local neighborhoods where food-insecure families may be existing in quiet desperation.
"Our churches are perfectly aligned to allow us to have boots on the ground where they are needed most," Robinson said. "We are blessed to be a part of this community during the time of COVID."
Carmen Rivera was there Friday with her husband, Angel, to load their pickup and take the food back to Bakersfield Christian Church on Bernard Street. As a longtime volunteer, Rivera handles the church's food distribution program.
"There is a need," she said. "Our pastor, Leticia Stepp, is 100 percent involved in all of this."
Every third Thursday the church holds a food distribution day.
"We serve 65 to 80 families, or about 250 to 400 people," she said. "I maintain a list and call those I believe are most in need."
But she's adamant that the church not only serve members of its congregation, but also those in the community who may not be connected to a church.
"You need to keep your ears open," she said, for information about families in need who don't benefit from the network of assistance that may be available to others.
It's that kind of in-the-trenches work that Robinson says is so important.
It's not just about the food, she said. It's about building relationships, about establishing human connections.
CityServe calls these partner-churches PODs, or points of distribution. The food boxes are not distributed to households from CityServe headquarters.
"The food boxes come directly from the farmers packed this way," Robinson said.
Since the food box program's launch on May 15, the CityServe Network has resourced churches in Kern County and has expanded the collaborative network across the state, CityServe said in a news release.
The organization calls it the "Last Mile of Need." And since the beginning, CityServe church PODs have distributed more than 11 million pounds of food across California, serving more than 300,000 food-insecure households, according to the organization.
Each food box contains a combination of fresh produce, dairy, fluid milk, and protein, and is delivered to CityServe warehouses by USDA-approved contractor, Vesta Foodservice.
It's a lot. But is it enough during this COVID-19 crisis, when unemployment has increased and lower-income households are bearing the brunt of the nation's suffering?
"It doesn't take long for the food boxes to go," said Ellis Williams, as he loaded boxes destined for Compassion Christian Center on 4th Street.
When the food is gone, he said, the need remains.