There was a time, pre-pandemic, when Taima Broadhead knew her clientele.
As Community Action of Napa Valley (CANV) Food Bank program coordinator, Broadhead oversees the seven food pantries spread throughout Napa County. At the pantry’s main branch on Yajome Street near downtown Napa, Broadhead knew the faces of her regulars, how many people they were feeding, their preferences and needs.
Thirty or forty unique clients would “grocery shop” for themselves each day the pantry offered service, Broadhead said, choosing items from the produce, freezer and deli sections.
Then came the coronavirus headlines; lockdowns and layoffs followed. In mid-March, the pantry switched to drive-up only service, and their client base doubled.
Broadhead and her volunteers served more than 80 people a day that first week, an increase partially attributable to Napa residents who were panicked by the sight of empty grocery store shelves, she thinks.
The second week of shelter in place came; people missed paychecks. The pantry served 150 a day. The fourth week arrived. Demand ballooned: staff was now serving more than 300 people daily.
“Normally we’d have something like 10 new clients a month – there are some that don’t come every month,” Broadhead said. That’s all changed in the last two months.
“Now I’m seeing a huge influx of people that I’ve never seen before, clients from all walks of life that you wouldn’t …” she trailed off. “Well, that normally wouldn’t access the food bank, but are now finding themselves without work.”
This week’s scene
It was a Thursday morning – the last of three consecutive days of service – and Broadhead was standing on the corner of Yajome and Bale, gloved hands resting on an outstretched clipboard, pen in hand.
“It’s 10:30?” she said, speaking to a longtime volunteer beside her and beginning to pace. Broadhead, 27, is tall, darkhaired; she takes up space when she speaks, exudes pep and a comforting kind of decisiveness when she gives direction. “Service starts in half hour.”
Cars lined up in droves across the street in the parking lot of New Tech High School; a handful of men and women in army uniforms, National guardsmen, stood bracingly in front of them, waiting to waive the first in line up to the curb where their trunks would be laden with food.
More uniforms lined the loading stations, camouflage in a sea of cardboard boxes and brown bags. Bags of produce – apples, oranges, potatoes, onions and the odd ear of corn – lined a five-yard stretch on Bale Street. Bright blue cartons of 2% milk dotted deli boxes filled with eggs and cheeses. There were boxes of meat, boxes of non-perishables, and bread bags, containing not just the loaves themselves but sweets and pastries donated from stores and restaurants in the area.
Service began at 11 a.m., and suddenly Broadhead was everywhere at once: speaking with clients, directing guardsmen, packing boxes, answering calls or meeting with volunteers, a group badly diminished by Governor Gavin Newsom’s directive for California residents over the age of 65 to self-isolate (the average age of the group was 74 pre-pandemic). Cars began pulling up, four at a time. They rolled down their windows, popped their trunks. Children stared out of back windows.
Just a few weeks ago, the start of service each day represented the crest of the huge effort put forth by the pantry’s volunteers to sustain it. They struggled to keep up with packing enough boxes to load the cars that streamed through Yajome Street each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Some drivers were picking up food for more than one family; others, asked how many people in their family, said nine, or seven, or five. The days blurred together for Broadhead, a cacophony of the thuds of boxes and the slamming of trunks.
“It was … I don’t want to say it was a nightmare, but it was really, really stressful and hard to pack the allotments and distribute them at the pace we needed to,” Broadhead said.
CANV Food Bank Director Shirley King, realizing need had grown out of hand, reached out to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Half a troop of guards – five, sometimes seven men and women – arrived in late March. Another troop’s worth arrived shortly after that. They’ll stay until the end of May.
The additional manpower was a godsend, according to King, who said operating at current capacity would not be possible without the help of the guard. Demand has exploded not just in Napa, but across the pantry’s locations through the valley: the Calistoga branch, for example, has gone from feeding 30-40 households to more than 460 as of last week.
Over the course of a single week in April, CANV Food Bank distributed more than 141,000 pounds of food to clients county-wide; in April alone, King spent $62,000 on food.
That kind of volume poses logistical challenges, even with the National Guard’s presence.
“I don’t know how long we can sustain this, because the food quite literally isn’t being manufactured fast enough,” King said. High demand on grocery stores has skewed her ordering capacity. Napa has been hit especially hard, she thinks, given how many people the crippled hospitality industry normally employs.
Monetary donations are a continual need; there is “no end date” in sight, King said, and in ordering bulk quantities of food she’s able to stretch a dollar farther than anyone can at a local grocery store.
“I wish there was an end date – I think we’re all wishing there was an end in sight,” she added. “This is not like any other disaster we’ve been through.”
On Thursday, six guardsmen – two to a loading station – stood in a warbled but visible single file line along the curbside. Staff Sgt. Joshua Mosley was already sweating in the early heat of the day. He paced along the street, the designated leader for the troops.
“There is no ‘normal’ to doing this,” Mosley said, asked if this particular mission is one the guard would normally take up. He crossed the street to help guide traffic; beads of sweat dripped from the back of his head onto his shoulders. “But this is textbook National Guard mission. They’ve had increased demand, they can’t work at the same pace that we can and many of the volunteers are higher risk, so it makes sense for us to be here.”
Broadhead, standing on Bale Street, began gently approaching each of the drivers – some masked, some not – to ask their names, their ZIP codes, and how many people they were feeding.
“In the beginning, most of the new clients would just tell me their life story as fast as they could, because they felt like they had to have an excuse for coming here,” Broadhead said. “I always just tell them we’re happy they came by.”
The next few hours were a blur of cars. Some were old, damaged, scratched; more than a few had been repaired haphazardly with duct tape or rope. Others were new – shiny, even. All of the occupants gazed out at the guardsmen.
“People that have never accessed a food bank before are definitely emotional when they come up,” Broadhead said. “Most of them are a little frantic. Like, I’m asking them what their ZIP code is – it’s a simple question, and most people know the answer. But they stumble over it sometimes. They’re just panicked.”
It’s then that Broadhead attempts to lean in: she likes to be personal with clients, especially new ones, who are sometimes apologetic and embarrassed to be in line for a food bank, a reaction Broadhead thinks is rooted in a kind of shame.
“That’s sad for me, too, because no one should have to feel like it’s shameful – they’re out of work, and it’s out of their control,” she said. The sun beaming down on her, she marked down another name on her clipboard, signing for clients because of the outbreak. “I grew up super poor, accessing food banks. Honestly, I qualify to shop here even when my husband and I both work full time.”
At 1:30 p.m., a half hour before service ended for the week, things were humming along; four at a time, trunks were filled and cars drove off. A handful of people stopped by on foot, dragging away boxes using suitcases or carts. Each family receives an average of 75 pounds of food, Broadhead said – enough to feed large families, not too much to overwhelm singular recipients. Normally families aren’t supposed to return more than once a month, too, but it’s been hard for the pantry to keep track.
The pantry normally asks clients to verify their income; eligibility criteria depends on the number of members per family. To qualify, an individual must make no more than $29,351.50 annually; a family of four, $60,512.50. Criteria has expanded greatly since Broadhead began work at the pantry about a year ago, she said: individual income had been restricted to no more than $1,500 a month, or $18,000 annually.
Even given logistical challenges, the pantry has had enough food to support the spike. The pantry is not currently adhering to its eligibility criteria, Broadhead said. Need is need. They have so far turned no one away.
“The increase in demand has corresponded directly with people missing their first and second paychecks,” she said, adding that she “absolutely” believed that all of her new clients were residents who had suddenly found themselves with little other choice. “Seeing this many people in dire need and not knowing how we’re going to get out of this – it’s pretty stressful.”
Still, Broadhead said: she makes sure that stress is never visible to her clients. Standing six feet away from the driver’s side of cars on Thursday, she was reliably upbeat in conversation. Some guardsmen, too, were interacting with clients, including Sgt. Gregg Hierholzer. Cap off, mask on, he greeted every car nothing short of enthusiastically. Music – The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” – blared from an iPhone nearby.
Sgt. Hierholzer, with the help of Spc. Daniel Outhavong, loaded boxes of food into a black suburban. A young boy – maybe 10, or 12 – opened the door and got out of the car, watching, almost shadowing Hierholzer, as if to silently offer his help. Outhavong placed the last of the boxes in the trunk and shut it, and the boy stepped back inside the car.
“Hey!” Hierholzer shouted. “Hey!”
He walked up to the passenger side window and rapped on it, motioning for the boy inside to roll it down. The boy’s eyebrows furrowed.
“Here,” Hierholzer said, once the window was cracked open, and he popped in a lone, chilled Capri Sun. A quiet smile snuck over the boy’s face, and then the car, along with its three neighbors, pulled away.
Editor’s Note: Because of the health implications of the COVID-19 virus, this article is being made available free to subscribers and non-subscribers alike. If you’d like to join us in supporting the mission of local journalism, please visit napavalleyregister.com/members/join/.
You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.