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Unsung heroes: Feeding St. Helena during coronavirus pandemic

Unsung heroes: Feeding St. Helena during coronavirus pandemic

From the Coronavirus roundup from the Napa Valley Register, St. Helena Star, and The Weekly Calistogan series

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series profiling ordinary people doing extraordinary things in this time of crisis. The series is sponsored by the Napa Valley Vintners. If you have a suggestion for a person to profile, email online@napanews.com.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed people’s lives and brought challenges and opportunities.

With unemployment claims at 4.1 million in California since March 15 and the unemployment rate at an estimated 4% in March, the challenges are obvious: How to feed people who are hungry.

In St. Helena, there are three groups doing that: the St. Helena Unified School District is providing breakfasts and lunches to school children two days a week; the St. Helena Community Food Pantry is providing boxes of food to ever-increasing numbers of people; and a new volunteer-led group, the Napa Valley New Deal, is beginning to feed families in need by having meals prepared at local restaurants.

SH Community Food Pantry

More than 200 families are registered to receive food at the St. Helena Community Food Pantry. Until mid-March, registration had hovered around 70-75 for several years, said Susan Davis, president of the food pantry.

Every Tuesday and Friday, cars like up outside the food pantry’s headquarters at the St. Helena Seventh-day Adventist Church. Last week, 169 families were served between the two days.

“We’re just slammed,” Davis said.

Rather than individuals, the new applicants tend to be families of between three and eight people, with multiple generations living under the same roof.

“We have people in their 70s and 80s who are living with family, and they’re not getting Social Security because they’ve been undocumented,” Davis said. “They’ve worked their whole lives, they’ve paid in, but they’re not (collecting).”

A lot of the new applicants never would have thought of needing the food pantry before the pandemic, and many are apologetic about needing it now, Davis said.

Every week, clients receive a bag of fresh produce, dairy products and frozen meat — although meat is getting harder to come by due to nationwide shortages, Davis said. Once a month clients receive a box of “basics” containing shelf-stable items like flour, rice, and canned fruits and vegetables. Clients also receive a monthly supply of non-perishables, frozen meat and fruit through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A new generation of volunteers is taking over the food pantry, such as Sarah Bertoli, retired teacher Ana Canales, and members of the St. Helena Odd Fellows — including some of Davis’ old students from her days at St. Helena High School, like Jason Kelperis.

“Everybody in this town has been so helpful,” Davis said. “And I don’t know where we’d be without the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They’ve turned over their entire facility to us.”

Davis said monetary donations are the most helpful, since canned goods must be sanitized prior to distribution. Checks may be sent to the St. Helena Community Food Pantry, P.O. Box 108, St. Helena, CA 94574, c/o Laurie Conwell.

Napa Valley New Deal

On Tuesday, on the website of the Napa Valley New Deal, nvnd.org, the group’s mission was listed: “Support a local business and feed a family in need.” It listed five restaurants/wineries, $1,200 in donations, 22 volunteers and 689-plus meals delivered. To donate, volunteer or participate, visit the website.

Grant and Gail Showley and Tish Wagner are founding directors of the new organization – all have been working feverishly to get the operation off the ground. They have enlisted the help of former St. Helenan Sara Cakebread.

On Friday afternoon, volunteers Katherine Grimes, Elizabeth Sklar and Logan Showley (son of Grant and Gail) were in the commercial kitchen at St. Helena’s Grace Episcopal Church dividing a rice and casserole dish into individual servings. Currently, there are 1,000 meals in the freezers, ready to go.

Two restaurants, Villa Corona and The Charter Oak, have signed up to cook meals. The Showleys have a list of 24 St. Helena restaurants and met with a dozen of them last week. The point is for the restaurants to prepare the meals, because they’re not doing much right now, Showley said. “Then, we’ll ask the philanthropists of our community (for donations), because they are concerned the restaurants will close permanently. How can they help? They can give money, because each meal served by the restaurant is $10. They serve 500 meals in a week and will get $5,000.

“The money goes to the restaurant for their employees,” Showley added. “We’re trying to find ways to sustain the restaurants.”

Showley was in the restaurant business for 30 years, both in Newport Beach and St. Helena (The Miramonte, which turned into Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, now closed.) He said he doubts whether his restaurant could have survived if it had been closed for three or four weeks. “I had a mortgage to pay, I had bills that needed to be paid,” he said. “I’m hearing of St. Helena and Napa restaurants that are in the process of closing – that will never open again.”

Napa Valley New Deal is based on a similar effort in San Francisco.

Grimes is a chef who has been working with the Gott family. Grant Showley said she called out of the blue and asked if she could help. “She’s helping in the kitchen. I realized there is so much to do to put this thing together, I can’t be in the kitchen anymore,” Showley said. “I can’t do both things well.”

Current efforts are to work with groups that need meals, for example, Adventist Health St. Helena Hospital – their kitchen is currently closed.

Gail Showley said, “People are waiting for us to get up and running. The end goal of this is to feed the people who badly need it.”

When asked how many people need food in St. Helena, Grant Showley responded, “That’s the million-dollar question. The issue is (the number) changes and it is a moving target. What’s happening here is the people who live here have lost their jobs, can’t afford to pay their rent and can’t afford to pay for food.”

Additionally, the group will seek nonprofit status, separate from Grace Church and continue their collaboration with the St. Helena Montessori School, including Elena and Alex Heil, to feed seniors at the Woodbridge community. For the past dozen years, Grant Showley has taught music and the culinary program at the Montessori school.

What is the future? Grant Showley had an answer: “It looks as though, unless things improve, which they don’t seem to be doing, we’re going to have a larger and larger population that needs food and needs meals.”

Editor’s Note: Because of the health implications of the COVID-19 virus, this article is being made available free to all online readers. If you’d like to join us in supporting the mission of local journalism, please visit napavalleyregister.com/members/join/.

You may reach David Stoneberg at 967-6800 or editor@sthelenastar.com

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St. Helena Star Editor

David Stoneberg is the editor of the St. Helena Star, an award-winning weekly newspaper. Prior to joining the Star in 2006, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, the Clear Lake Observer American, the Middletown Times Star and The Weekly Calistogan.

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