On a chilly morning Tuesday, with fog hanging thick, dozens of cars were already lined up along a Rocklin street awaiting the opening of Placer Food Bank’s last free drive-through farmers market before Christmas.
Headlights on and tail pipes sputtering into the cold air, they made their way through the line, popping their trunks for volunteers wearing Santa hats and masks who loaded cars with cans, fruits and vegetables, and other non-perishable foods.
The sight has become all too familiar this year, with demand for food through the Placer Food Bank skyrocketing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, the food bank — which serves 4,700 square miles across Placer, Nevada and El Dorado counties — distributed an additional 500,000 pounds of food compared to 2019. Attendance at its monthly free drive-throughs more than tripled by October, prompting the food bank to add six more locations for food distribution in Lincoln, Placerville, Pollock Pines, Sheridan, Cameron Park and Georgetown.
In October, the line at its Rocklin location numbered more than 400 cars, said Lisa Heinrich, director of development for the food bank.
“That’s the kind of increase we’re seeing in our communities, and just replicate that across the country,” she said. “That’s what becomes more astounding each day.”
Heinrich said much of the increase in demand in attributed to job loss and furloughs in the region as a result of pandemic closures. Many people now using the food bank are food insecure for the first time in their lives, she said.
According to data collected by the food bank in July, more than 94,000 people in its service area were food insecure, meaning they did not have regular access to healthy foods because of lack of money or other extenuating circumstances.
In the last year, Placer County jobs have decreased by 8.7%, losing 89,500 jobs, according to a county executive report presented to the Board of Supervisors in October. People working in the leisure and hospitality industry were hit the hardest, shedding 32,200 jobs. Food services also took a hit, losing 23,600 jobs. And in 2020, Placer County had a 16% share of Small Business Administration loans, marking the sharpest decline in small business lending since 2012.
The unemployment has affected 55% of renters and 40% of homeowners, the county said.
And the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy “precludes many business sectors from fully reopening for the foreseeable future, deepening the economic impacts,” the report said.
“The need, we sadly believe, is not going to lessen,” Heinrich said. “That’s what weighs on our hearts. We don’t know what the variables or the long term effects of COVID-19 are going to do with regard to employment and the economy and what food assistance can look like down the road.”
Furthermore, as a result of the pandemic, the Placer Food Bank has had to reduce their volunteer staff and stop taking food donations from the public to keep working conditions safe and limit the number of touch points, Heinrich said.
Luckily, Heinrich added, their supply chain has not been interrupted and has been able to meet the increase in demand throughout its service area, including partnering with numerous rural partners to ensure meals reach residents living in the county’s hard to reach places.
At the Rocklin free drive-through farmers market on Tuesday, volunteers dressed in holiday attire worked quickly to fill cars as they filed in with onions, potatoes, carrots and baked goods.
“They are out here greeting people, welcoming them and checking them is as they come through the line,” said Mary Shoenberger, associate director of programs at the food bank. “And then we have a stop, pop, load and go farmers market where you can come in, stop and pop your trunk. We’ll load it up with food and then you take off.
Violet Mitchell, a Loomis resident, was among the long line of cars Tuesday stocking up with much-needed fresh food before the Christmas holiday.
Mitchell said the work of the volunteers as the food bank was “very important” to her.
“It’s very meaningful and it helps out a lot, especially with older people who live alone” she said, her voice thick with emotion. “It’s overwhelming to see the people out in the cold doing this work and serving other people, serving God.”
Bee photojournalist Daniel Kim contributed to this story.