Donations of both food and money at Community Action Napa Valley’s Food Bank fell dramatically in 2015, causing agency employees to scramble to help Napa’s neediest.
"For the first time in 12 years, our food donations are down," said Shirley King, director of the Food Bank.
In 2014, 64,756 pounds of food were donated to the nonprofit. In 2015 that number dropped 52.2 percent to 30,909 pounds.
Monetary donations to the Food Bank have also fallen.
In 2014, donors gave the Food Bank $483,142. In 2015, the number sank to $383,310. The 2014 total was not due to earthquake-related giving, said King. In 2013, donations totaled $453,925.
“It’s shocking,” said King of the 2015 decline.
The Food Bank is serving fewer households than in past years. In 2009, it served 14,241 people. In 2015, that number was 9,824, said King. But that doesn’t mean the Food Bank can survive on dwindling donations.
“We’re serving fewer individuals but we still need more funds and food because we’re serving those individuals more frequently and on a regular basis,” she said.
Indeed, the amount of food distributed by the food bank rose, from 1.5 million pounds in 2014 to 1.6 million in 2015. To make up the difference, the agency is having to spend more money on buying food to distribute. That means other expenses have to be cut.
For example, "We had to cut the number of on-call drivers during the holidays and we did with less staff," King said. Of the four part-time and four full-time employees, everyone does multiple jobs. King said she even drives a forklift when needed.
“We’re all doing more with less,” said King. “That’s the nonprofit way.”
King said she’s not sure how to explain the decline, but she suspects donor fatigue. After the 2014 earthquake and then the Valley Fire, “People are just burnt out,” she suspects.
Also, two independent fundraisers that the Food Bank normally benefits from didn’t occur in 2015, she noted. Some regular donors have cut back on their giving, for reasons she’s unaware of.
King said more seniors rely on the Food Bank these days. When she started her job more than 15 years ago, approximately 8 percent of the Food Bank’s customers were seniors. Today, that number is 17 percent.
“Their income is fixed,” she said.
People are also using the service differently. The Food Bank used to be considered an emergency resource, something that people used during tough times or for a shorter period.
Today’s Food Bank clients are using the service year-round. They have no choice, King said. The cost of housing in Napa has risen, forcing working class people to choose between paying rent and buying food.
“It’s not people in crisis," King said. "This is part of their part of their regular survival.”
“It’s bad,” said King.
The Food Bank is considering new strategies to increase assistance. It plans to implement a year-round food drive called the Napa Food Project, where locals agree to donate food on a monthly basis.
“I believe we may be able to launch the pilot by mid May 2016,” she said.
The Food Bank's statistics don't surprise Kara Reyes, program manager for the family resource center at Cope Family Center. The rising cost of housing in Napa County is a big problem, she said.
“We have seen more families move out of Napa County over the past year than we have in many, many years. They are leaving because they can’t afford it anymore.”
For those who don’t have the resources to leave, they have less for other expenses. “It’s placing a burden on the food system,” Reyes said.
“There are great programs in Napa, but the problem is that we’re competing with the high cost of living,” said Reyes. "You can do all this great work” but housing and food “are still a huge part of the problem. And we have to address that as a community,” she said. “It’s impacting a way of life for future generation.”
Some seniors may receive items from the Food Bank, but aren’t capable of cooking or have lost interest in preparing meals.
Instead, they rely on prepared foods, quick serve items or Meals on Wheels deliveries, said Yvonne Baginski, a senior care specialist in Napa.
When a senior lives alone and there’s no one to cook for, there’s less incentive to cook at all, she said.
“They want something that is easy to grab because they are by themselves,” she said. Most of the time, “they are looking for something that is already cooked or ready to eat.”
Some seniors have a hard time turning down free food, said Baginski. Some seniors she works with will hoard food.
“They’ll have cupboards filled with food,” she said.