By Ford Kanzler, Special to the Pajaronian
The pandemic and the business closures that have come with it have hit many Watsonville residents hard. Two local institutions have stepped up to soften the blow.
After schools closed in mid-March of last year, Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) and Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB) created an alliance to bring massive quantities of healthy food to students and families.
First, PVUSD’s Food and Nutrition Services team transitioned its breakfast and lunch distribution program to a drive-thru format and began distributing to 20,000 children at 33 schools. Between March and December, the district’s team provided nearly 4 million meals to children in the community.
Prior to March school closures and throughout the following period, PVUSD and SHFB have weekly contacts to combine resources. The district and food bank are coordinating logistics and remaining agile, ensuring that families have food after schools and businesses closed. Second Harvest provides USDA bags to families at the District’s meal distribution locations. Conversely PVUSD’s textbook driver became an ad-hoc member of the food and nutrition services team by picking-up and delivering weekly USDA food bags from SHFB to meal distribution sites.
PVUSD also worked with the Elkhorn Slough Foundation and the Monterey County Food Bank to scale-up provisions of additional food for the PVUSD families residing in Pajaro and Northern Monterey County.
“Second Harvest and the District act as sister organizations,” says Linda Liu, Director of Food & Nutrition Services with PVUSD. “We share the same mission, feeding students and their families.”
PVUSD and SHFB combine outreach and multilingual hotline staffing efforts for California’s Pandemic-EBT food benefit program. The district had nearly 16,000 qualifying students for this one-time benefit which equated to $5.7 million dollars families may spend on food. CalFresh sign-ups are occurring during PVUSD meal distribution hours. Through this joint work on the hotline, families can enroll for CalFresh support.
“PVUSD is an excellent partner,” said Josué Barajas, Second Harvest’s chief programs officer. “Logistics and staffing issues were easily handled and it immediately became a team effort. There is a mutual understanding about what’s essential to putting the community first. It was great how we jointly served both the District’s students and the families, supplementing them with fresh produce.”
With the food bank and district working more closely, the two agencies are creating opportunities for increased communication and awareness about food resources to families and students.
“We’re building stronger relationships and growing partnerships,” Liu said. “Parents are putting a face on our staff members, seeing how hard they’re working and making positive connections. I’m also seeing a greater understanding of the importance of school meals and how many students rely on them. Working with Second Harvest is helping us reach more families.”
Other examples of positive connections resulting from the food distribution efforts include, students seeing the district’s employees at the pickup sites, creating small but especially valuable moments of continuity for the students every day. There were decorations and friendly faces in costumes creating some Halloween fun to help make the pandemic less scary. And Santa showed up at distributions during Christmas.
Sandra Sanchez, district nutrition department supervisor and long-term volunteer at Second Harvest, said she appreciates the rapid Food Bank responses to questions and other helpful assistance it’s provided. Handling big loads of food packages is tough work. But in return, Sanchez and the other district team members receive the community’s gratitude.
“It’s an amazing experience hearing their kind words,” Sanchez said. “I get a lot of ‘God bless yous.’”
At one school site, she said she is particularly moved by the responsibility of two brothers, ages 12 and 7, who ride their bikes to bring food home for their family.
“We get to feel the love of our community as we’re helping them,” she adds.