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Orders to shelter in place to curb the spread of the virus have put nearly 10 million Americans out of work in just the past few weeks and left a deluge of needy students without guaranteed school meals. As a result, many are wondering when they'll eat next.
In California, whose $3.1 trillion economy makes it the fifth-largest in the world, droves of White Pony Express volunteers are responding in one county by delivering tens of thousands of pounds of excess food from supermarkets and distributors to nonprofits serving seniors, children and families and the homeless.
Due to the spike in demand, on some days, volunteers handle more than 21,000 pounds, a far cry from the usual 7,000 to 10,000 pounds of excess food handled prior to the pandemic.
“On three days, we processed over ten tons of surplus food each day," said interim executive director and volunteer Isa Campbell. "This is a tremendous challenge to our volunteers and staff. They are having to process more than twice as much food as normal."
White Pony Express was founded in 2013 by Dr. Carol Weyland Conner, who had learned that about 40 percent of inventory from supermarkets across Contra Costa County, the East Bay region of the San Francisco area, was going to waste even though thousands were hungry.
With an $800 budget and a handful of volunteers, she set out to change that.
In a little over six years, the organization grew to hundreds of volunteers gathering, sorting and delivering more than 10.5 million pounds of fresh food, equivalent to about 8.7 million meals, free of charge to approximately 70 nonprofit organizations serving the needy.
"We don't just deliver them food. We deliver them love, and hope - things that are essential right now."
A majority of extra food is coming primarily from San Francisco Bay Area distributors whose demand has been slashed by restaurant closures during the pandemic.
“Starbucks has been a phenomenal partner for us,” Campbell said. “and they continue to provide us ready-to-eat meals that are perfect for the homeless and homebound seniors who can’t cook.”
The organization is also receiving an influx of calls from homeless shelters, community kitchens, school pantries, churches, and senior residences with whom they have never partnered before.
"More than ever, they need free deliveries of surplus food to feed the poor, sick, and elderly who are sheltering in place and those without shelter," Campbell said.
Just last week, the organization set up a food delivery at a church in Antioch, California, where it expected to serve 200 families. Instead, 632 showed up.
"We don't just deliver them food. We deliver them love, and hope -- things that are essential right now," said Clifford Lee Strand Jr., White Pony Express driver.
While a majority of older volunteers have been told to stay home because they appear to be more susceptible to the virus, the organization says new offers to help are filling some of the gaps.
"During this pandemic, they could have stayed home and waited it out," Campbell said. "But they are so eager to help people, they are still coming in and picking up this food, sorting it, and delivering it."
Despite the efforts of 200 to 400 daily volunteers, however, the organization is still scrambling to meet the surge in demand.
“We know people need this food so much," she said. "We’re trying hard to increase our capability to deliver the food available to us. We need another box van, and we’re looking for additional space where we can process all this food while we’re ‘social distancing.’ It’s a challenge, and we welcome any help we can get. But we believe in the mission.”
The organization is currently working with a fleet of 11 vehicles, the majority of which are refrigerated, and a food-distribution center and loading dock that span 3,000 square feet.
To protect volunteers from infection, the organization strengthened protocols for sanitizing and put rigorous safety requirements in place. Volunteers and recipients are asked to wear gloves and masks and to practice safe social distancing.
"Even though we're keeping our distance, we're very close," said food rescue volunteer Ana Bostick.
The volunteer-powered organization hopes that its food rescue model will eventually be mimicked not only across the nation but throughout the world.
“There is abundance around most of us that can be gathered and shared with those in need," Conner said. "And by connecting the spirit of volunteerism with this abundance, it can really make a difference in people’s lives."