Long before hundreds of vehicles roll up on Tuesday morning, a half dozen volunteers are on the job. Along a makeshift assembly line, extended to allow for social distancing, a half dozen volunteers wearing masks and disposable gloves are filling 1,500 plastic grocery bags, an activity which began on Monday. The bags are packed with food staples picked up from a half dozen local grocery stores over the past week—cans of soup, tuna, vegetables and fruit, packages of pasta, rice, nutrition bars, and cereal. This morning, they also bag fresh produce which is picked up twice weekly at the Alameda County Community Food Bank: apples, oranges, potatoes, onions, and asparagus. A third bag holds meat products: sandwich meat, frozen pizza, and chicken or ground beef. Today, Arsola’s Distribution Center and Community Services, or Arsola’s, will also pass out bags of detergent and hygiene kits.
Even before COVID-19, the Alameda County Community Food Bank reached 330,000 people experiencing hunger. Since then and consistent with national trends, it is receiving six times the typical number of calls for food assistance due to rising unemployment and food insecurity in the community. At the same, the work force of regular volunteers—including many seniors who are now excluded due to vulnerability to the virus—has dropped off dramatically. Despite the tidal wave of demand and shrinking pool of volunteers, the food bank has added 20 new distribution sites including 10 school districts along with three drive-through distributions of their own.
Still, some of the food bank’s frontline neighborhood pantries have been forced to cut back or suspend service due to safe food handling and social distancing requirements. But others, like Arsola’s, have stepped up and expanded their reach across East Oakland’s most food-insecure neighborhoods. As Michael Altfest, the food bank’s director of community engagement and marketing told me, “Our 280 agency partners—like Arsola’s House—are the lifeblood of our efforts to serve 1 in 5 county residents. Candi Thornton and her team have always demonstrated a passion and commitment to this community. And as we’ve seen an unprecedented surge in need resulting from the COVID-19 crisis, it’s been nothing short of inspiring to see partner agencies like Arsola’s House double down on their efforts to make sure this need is being met.”
As the final bags are packed, the staging area is being set up in the parking lot: two paneled trucks, bookending a large folding table covered with bread and desserts, including cookies, cakes and pies. Two Oakland police officers pull away in their blue-paneled truck loaded with grocery bags.
Besides their own food giveaway, Arsola’s now provides the food for the Police Activities League’s (PAL) new weekly drive-up distribution at Verdese Carter Park at 96th and Bancroft, which also starts in another hour.
By 11 AM, vehicles snake out of the parking lot, and round two corners along three long blocks. Arsola’s is ready to greet the day’s first customer.
“Anyone can just drive up,” Arsola Executive Director Candi Thornton says. “They don’t get out. There’s no contact. We tell them ‘good morning’ and just put the bags in their cars.”
In the fourth week of the COVID-19 shut down, this is Arsola’s fourth drive through distribution. By word of mouth, the numbers for the Tuesday distribution have risen steadily.
Dr. Michael Jones, who runs the resource center out of a local church, is one of the first to pull up. “We give out information to our congregation about where food resources are available,” he says. “There’s probably at least five of our members in line behind me. I’m just picking up for my wife and I today. This is plenty for us but times are really hard.”
Four years ago, I found Arsola’s weekly food distribution, then headquartered in a church basement near Castlemont High School, to be a neighborly appointment-based shopping experience which had earned it a “Pantry of the Year” award. Arsola’s still serves those 125 families, mainly folks on foot pushing carts, there, or at a new site near 105th and Edes Ave.
With a fourfold increase in requests for food assistance in the wake of COVID-19, Thornton and her loyal crew of a dozen volunteers “knew we would have to be creative,” she told me. “I noticed when McDonald’s closed down its dining in, everyone was going through the drive through. That’s how we came up with the idea.”
“When Ms. Candi says she’s got an idea,’ the rest of the team just looks around and thinks to themselves, ‘here we go again,’” said Jesse Vasquez, with a mix of admiration and awe.
The drive-through distribution—likely the first in Oakland—was also just the first of Arsola’s responses to the emergency shut down. Soon after, Oakland police officer Jamaal Hill of the PAL at the Verdese Carter Park reached out. Arsola’s now supplies their weekly give away in the Elmhurst district.
Around the same time, Supervisor Nate Miley’s office called. Concerned about the availability of food for homebound seniors in his district, aide Darryl Stewart heard from volunteer Laura McCoy that Arsola’s had started making deliveries to seniors. Now, Miley’s office supplies a list and Arsola’s makes home deliveries to East Oakland’s most vulnerable residents within 24 hours, 55 so far and not counting the other 45 they already serve monthly.
In addition, every Wednesday, Arsola’s works with nearly a dozen other church and community groups to get food to everyone from unhoused people to Mayan-speaking Guatemalan immigrants and refugees and recently released, formerly incarcerated individuals.
Jesse Vasquez, himself formerly incarcerated, reflected on his year on the front lines and particularly the past month, perhaps spoke to the spirit of Arsola’s when he said, “We’ve seen every class of individual come through the food line. It’s been both amazing and humbling to give back to the community. East Oakland is one of those places where people are sometimes forgotten, written off because they’re low income or a minority because of indifference or ignorance. I want to make a difference where it matters most.”
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Arsola’s drive-through distribution at 7801 Edgewater Dr. takes place every Tuesday at 11am and will continue until COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
Walk up distributions continue at these locations: First Morning Star Baptist Church, 1501 90th Ave, Oakland 94603 on the 2nd and 4th Mondays; Center of Hope Community Church, 8411 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland 94605 on every 3rd Friday.
For further information or to make a donation, contact Arsola’s here:
Arsola’s Distribution Center and Community Services, P.O Box 5520 Oakland, CA 94605; 510-924-7886. www.arsola.org