Directly after the stay-at-home order went into effect on March 19, I began hearing about the increased amount of unused food piling up as schools, hotels, and restaurants closed their doors. I immediately reached out to my network of food rescue partners to see how COVID-19 was affecting them, and how I could help.
I didn’t know that within the week my work would take on a new level of importance.
On Day 1 of the shutdown, one of the largest food distributors in the country, Sysco, contacted me with an urgent offer: they had over 5,000 pounds of dairy, meat and produce that needed to move quickly. Typically I move that much about every two months, but within 48 hours, I had linked them with Waste-Free Ventura County and Veggie Rescue in Santa Barbara County, both of which immediately began distributing the excess food to those in need.
Around that same time I learned that New Beginnings Counseling Center needed help distributing prepared meals to Santa Barbara’s unhoused population and veterans. Within a few days, I found a caterer – Lunchbox Catering – willing to volunteer their time to prepare more than 100 meals for New Beginnings, using some of the donated Sysco food.
It became clear that Santa Barbara County Food Rescue’s role was morphing from being more than just about saving food. As widespread unemployment and extended stay-at-home orders left an unprecedented number of Santa Barbara County residents without the means or ability to feed themselves and their families, one thing was certain: it was now about saving people.
Since 2018, SBC Food Rescue has matched donors that have excess, nutritious food with organizations serving food insecure populations. This CEC-led effort has coordinated the rescue of nearly 60,000 pounds of edible prepared food and ingredients for distribution through more than a dozen agencies, including Buellton Senior Center, Casa Serena, PATH, and Salvation Army Hospitality House. Beyond helping people, food rescue mitigates climate impacts by keeping high quality excess prepared food out of landfills, where it decomposes and emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
When the pandemic hit, our team rapidly began exploring how SBC Food Rescue’s distribution channels, relationships, and networking mindset could quickly be scaled up. Our new mission became not only to recover excess food that might otherwise go to waste, but to find and match chefs and caterers who are able to intentionally create prepared meals with agencies that serve seniors, unsheltered populations and others dealing with increased need due to COVID-19 – in some cases using recovered produce or local ingredients.
This new mission has taken shape as the Community Food Collaborative, created in partnership with SB ACT and Social Venture Partners. Every $10 contribution pays for restaurant workers to prepare a nutrient-dense meal from locally sourced ingredients, packaged and ready to be distributed by local nonprofits.
In its first few weeks, the collaborative has served more than 500 meals to unsheltered populations with the help of ACME Hospitality (owners of Santa Barbara restaurants The Lark, Loquita, Tyger Tyger and others). The collaborative is currently serving unsheltered populations in south county, but with additional funding, has the potential to expand countywide. Initial funders are the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, Social Venture Partners, and the Natalie Orfalea Foundation.
Santa Barbara County Food Rescue is now compiling and managing a centralized database that identifies all the players in charitable food distribution which will help identify gaps in service, thanks to support from the Santa Barbara Foundation and its funding partners through the COVID-19 Joint Response Effort for Santa Barbara County. Among other purposes, this hub is being used to help match donors who have excess food with agencies who can get it to those in need.
Through this county-wide database, any organization supporting charitable food donation, delivery, or distribution during this time is encouraged to share what they are doing and where they need help: https://www.sbcfoodrescue.org/join-hub. The collected information is available for other organizations to view and can be filtered to focus on an agency’s area of interest.
By playing matchmaker and relaying information to others in the charitable feeding space, we’ve been able to problem solve for short and long term needs and prevent a significant amount of food from going to waste.
In this time of unprecedented crisis, the food system is being asked to flex in ways we never expected. We can expect, however, that COVID-19 will not be our last crisis. We must be prepared to weather future disruptions to our food system and ensure a continuous supply of safe, accessible food for our community.
Protecting the resilience of our food system is one of the Community Environmental Council’s primary strategic goals, and why we co-founded the Santa Barbara County Food Action Network in partnership with the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County and Santa Barbara Foundation. Working together, this is how we create a culture of preparedness and build resilience to other major threats, including the increasing impacts of climate change.
To contribute to CEC’s SBC Food Rescue, please visit https://cecsb.org/give. Through June 30, all donations will be DOUBLED by CEC’s Leadership Match Fund.
- Please contact [email protected] if you are a food business that has surplus food or an organization that could help distribute rescued food to community members.
- To assist in identifying county-wide needs and resources, SBC Food Rescue created a simple form for any organization supporting charitable food donation, delivery or distribution during this time to share their role. The form can be filled out here: https://www.sbcfoodrescue.org/join-hub/
- See our press release about SBC Food Rescue’s work to support the community during COVID-19.
- See the article from Santa Barbara Independent to learn more about our role in the multi-agency pandemic response to connect local farmers and fishermen with caterers and chefs to create meals for those in need.