By Laura Tinthoff

In the pandemic of 2020, with illness, job loss, and business closures, millions of Americans are worried about empty refrigerators and barren cupboards.

The first place many Americans find relief is their neighborhood food pantry, most connected to vast networks of nonprofits. Tons of food move each day from grocery store discards and government handouts to warehouse distribution centers and then to the neighborhood charity.

In Napa County, the primary sources for local food distribution are Community Action Napa Valley (CANV), Catholic Charities, and the USDA.

Staff and volunteers of CANV have made many significant changes to adjust to the skyrocketing demand for food. Charlotte Williams, Napa Vision 2050 president, and the volunteer Calistoga food bank distribution coordinator, in 2020, shared that household numbers in need went from approximately 50 pre-Covid to over 300 during the pandemic in her city limits alone.

Shirley King, Director of the Napa Valley Food Bank has served for 21 years, giving her a unique perspective. She has a staff of ten – four full-time and six part-time, supported by 209 dedicated volunteers. She explained that one million pounds of food once supplied the county for a year, but that need quickly rose to two million pounds during the first five months of the pandemic.

In the past, households registered annually and would visit their local food pantry once a month to sort through various food choices based on their household size and dietary preferences. Now, they can come as often as is needed.

To compensate for this three-to-four-fold increase in need, as well as social distancing, food is packed at the distribution center. It can be picked up, take-out style, at seven locations throughout Napa county. Boxes contain a variety of food categories; however, each class is created equally. For example, one container may have canned chili, and another may have black beans to fill the bean carbohydrate slot. Another box may have different types of bread depending on what is available.

The CANV also supports the Senior Brown Box program for low-income people sixty years and older. Items in their allocation are generally lower in salt and sugar and are easily prepared. The food bank also provides beverages with protein or electrolytes for hydration. These items are procured from local markets and local manufactures for a price and delivered to Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, Napa, and American Canyon.

New means of obtaining food and funds have created yet another hurdle. At the beginning of the pandemic, even food markets could not supply enough food as it was not being manufactured as fast as the demand. The California Association of Food Banks had tractor-trailers sitting at bays of food manufacturing plants waiting for food to come up the line to distribute it to those in need.

Not only is food in demand, but funds are in short supply. The food drives that took place every other month and typically brought in 10,000 lbs. of food are no longer in operation due to safety protocols. This multitude of new problems has created an enormous impact on the way our food bank operates. Food now comes from a number of places, and “loads and loads” of food are now being purchased.

A reclamation program that operates Monday through Saturday sends staff volunteers and volunteers to local markets such as Target, Safeway, Lucky’s, Cara’s Cupcakes, Sweetie Pies, Model Bakery, Nob Hill, Raley’s, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and Walmart to name just a few.

The USDA contributes a limited supply of shelf-stable and fresh food that food banks are responsible for distributing. Once a month, our region gets a tractor-trailer load of USDA commodities. This program benefits the local food banks in some ways, but, in reality, it has been created to ensure that farmers and growers can be guaranteed to have funds from their crops. Primarily, these government funds go to large operations and barely trickle down to the smaller farms.

Recently the Governor’s office has ordered the National Guard to assist volunteers. They control traffic and load the thirty-pound boxes into cars. Many of the volunteers are not able to do that physical work for several hours a day. This assistance helps greatly with the increased traffic and demand and makes the processes efficient.

Our community is also an affiliate of Feeding America, a national food-making network that receives donations from large corporations such as Nabisco and Kellogg’s. We accept donations from other sizable food banks as we cannot take on whole tractor-trailer loads due to lack of storage space. This food is often not very nutritious as it may be a promotional product such as a green Lucky Charms cereal that was promoted for St. Patrick’s Day or leftover Valentine’s Day candy. Napa food banks do not have a strict food nutrition policy. These foods are considered “treats”.

Lastly, we are part of the “Northern California Cluster”. Smaller food banks come together to prioritize what we want to spend money on to fill a tractor-trailer and obtain the wholesale cost.

Hundreds of volunteers and limited paid staff are working diligently to feed our community in these troubled times. They deserve our deepest gratitude for their enormous contribution.

To donate to our local food bank, please visit: