The month of November in San Luis Obispo County would typically mean refrigerated trucks stationed outside grocery stores and San Luis Obispo (SLO) Food Bank volunteers gathering turkeys from holiday shoppers willing to donate.
“Really, the excitement of the Turkey Drive is going to your store, purchasing the frozen turkey, taking it out to the trunk and really feeling like you’re making a huge impact,” SLO Food Bank Development Director Branna Still said.
For more than a decade, that’s how the annual KCOY Turkey Drive would usually play out. Up until Nov. 19, the Turkey Drive would help SLO Food Bank and the Good Samaritan Shelter to equip families with Thanksgiving meals.
But this year, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a change of plans.
With public safety concerns and SLO Food Bank operations restricted by the pandemic, receiving food donations was out of the picture, pushing the food bank to rely solely on monetary support — deemed “turkey bucks” — in order to fight the increase in food insecurity due to COVID-19.
“Within the first day, about half of the turkey bucks were sold at three out of the four stores, so we had to rush-order another shipment,” Still said.
And just one buck can go a long way — for every dollar donated, SLO Food Bank can provide seven meals to families experiencing food insecurity, largely due to their bulk purchasing agreements.
With about 236 donors this year, the Turkey Drive raised $27,760.70 as of Nov. 24, which Still said can provide more than 70,000 holiday meals.
This year, those meals are in even higher demand than usual.
SLO Food Bank CEO Garret Olson announced at a San Luis Obispo County Health Commission meeting on Nov. 9 that according to a study conducted by the California Association of Food Banks and Stanford Data Labs, 17% of San Luis Obispo County residents were food insecure before the pandemic.
Now, food insecurity in the county has increased by 154%, amounting to about 74,000 food insecure residents, according to the study.
SLO Food Bank had a six-month supply of food in their warehouse pre-pandemic, but saw a 73% drop in its supply within the first six weeks after COVID-19 took hold.
“We were ordering food as fast as we possibly could,” Olson said at the meeting.
Still, the food bank never ran out of food nor was forced to ration. Instead, they were able to provide more than three times the amount of food than before the pandemic.
For the Turkey Drive, SLO Food Bank’s 81 agency partners receive turkey donations from the food bank. Then, some agencies will prepare meals themselves, and others will ensure the food is delivered in time for Thanksgiving.
One such partner is the Cal Poly Food Pantry, which is available to all students, staff and faculty. The pantry will remain open Monday through Friday even during the break, but will be closed from Christmas Day to early January, according to Campus Health and Wellbeing Marketing Director Erica A. Stewart.
That’s because students aren’t immune to the rise of food insecurity in the county. As Still said, “hunger doesn’t have a distinguishable face.”
Still said that college students especially have been working many of the jobs that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19. With less money, people start having to make trade-offs, which could mean making the choice between buying medication, paying rent or buying food. Even then, sometimes that food isn’t exactly the type of nutritious meal SLO Food Bank advocates for.
“Thinking back to my college days, I would just take my limited amount of money that I have for the month, and I’m trying to make my dollars go further by going through McDonald’s drive-thru and hitting up the dollar menu,” Still said. “But food isn’t just something that you eat, you prepare, you enjoy, but it’s also something that nourishes your body. So it’s really important that we set up our students for success.”
Biological sciences professor Candace Winstead, who serves on the County Health Commission, said that hunger inhibits concentration and makes school all the more challenging for students. To fight food insecurity overall, Winstead said that those who are able to “need to step up.”
“That sometimes can be really hard because, you know, all of us want to try to just take care of our own problems,” Winstead said. “But this is a time for solidarity building and community building.”
SLO Food Bank is also adapting their annual Thanksgiving morning Turkey Trot fundraiser to a remote format still held on Nov. 26.
Rather than the usual 2-mile walk and 5-mile run held at Avila Beach and Pismo Beach, this year, Turkey Trot participants can complete their runs and hikes individually at any location.
Still said that this year’s Turkey Trot has a “silver lining” — with no designated location to get to, more people from across the county should be able to join.
“I’m hoping that we can just flood our entire county with our Turkey Trot t-shirts at 8:30 that morning and just raise awareness for the fact that people are having tough times, and truly raise those critical funds that will help assist us in providing those holiday meals,” Still said.
But SLO Food Bank’s work won’t end after Thanksgiving.
From now until Dec. 11, the food bank is participating in KSBY’s annual Season of Hope Food and Toy Drive, which is collecting monetary donations, non-perishable food and unwrapped toys. Currently, SLO Food Bank has 80 food barrels posted at various food collection sites, according to their website.