Food Share steps up for COVID-affected community

Central Coast Best Places to Work. I May 28 – June 3, 2021 • Vol. 22, No. 11

By Marissa Nall
Special to the Business Times

To  take care of an unprecedented number of Ventura County residents in 2020, Food Share’s leadership team knew it first had to take care of its 36 employees. 

With businesses closed and unemployment high during the pandemic, the number of people in the county experiencing food insecurity doubled to 150,000, said President and CEO Monica White. In response, Food Share doubled the amount of food it delivered to 26 million pounds in 2020, using popup and drive-through distributions. 

“We really wanted to make sure our employees were safe first so we could keep serving Ventura,” White said. “It’s the oxygen mask theory, right? You have to put your mask on first so you can help others on the plane.” 

Doing so required strict compliance with safety precautions from temperature checks to gloves, masks and even expanding into a second warehouse to enable employees to maintain distance.

Throughout the pandemic, Food Share hired three more employees to handle the increased demand, “but really it was the core staff stepping up and just taking on more,” White said. “That’s the admirable part.” 

Distributing twice as much food meant twice as many deliveries, longer days and working weekends, she said. The nonprofit got support from its 3,000 volunteers, and the California Air National Guard to pack emergency food boxes. 

Distributor partners like The Berry Man also stepped up to deliver to drive-through sites after the CARES Act Coronavirus Farmer Assistance Program helped procure fresh produce from farmers whose supply chains had been upended. 

“They helped us with that last mile to be able to get the produce literally to the people’s trunks that were driving through every day,” White said. 

Food Share’s executive team helped its employees go remote where possible and took advantage of essential pay programs to boost pay for frontline workers like drivers and warehouse employees. 

“It was almost a full-time job for our HR person just to keep up with all the changes due to COVID and what the guidelines were,” White said. 

With so many new families depending on their services, Food Share has been able to reach more people than ever with its services and spread awareness of food insecurity throughout the county, she added. 

“It was such an amazing thing to watch because we didn’t know how long it was going to last — nobody did; we still don’t,” White said. “We were working in 90-day increments, and we had to go at marathon pace.”

But one of the most important measures it took was not to keep people apart, but finding ways to bring them back together safely. It installed a big screen TV in its warehouse for presentations and hosted monthly, socially distanced staff meetings. 

“It was very important for us to be able to continue getting together to celebrate our wins, encourage people, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and share what the plans are,” White said. “Having that team camaraderie of tackling the mission all together — there was nobody not rowing.”