White Pony Express is adapting every aspect of its operations to fight the growing food insecurity crisis in Contra Costa, California.

By Martin do Nascimento and Austin Price

Past Stories, Uncategorized
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This story was published in partnership with YES! Magazine.

By 11am on a Wednesday in Antioch, California, hundreds of cars are lined up at the Palabra de Dios Community Church. The cars fill the church’s ample parking lot and snake up the neighboring service street, spilling into the intersection at the head of the block, past the next traffic light, and the next. 

Some of the drivers wear face masks while kids play idly on cell phones sitting in the back seat. Some have made the trip from as far as San Mateo and San Carlos, over an hour’s drive away on the opposite side of San Francisco Bay. All of them are waiting for food.

Most weekdays since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a box truck delivers groceries here: bags of fresh kale, lettuce, and radishes; boxes of apples, limes, and tomatoes; canned beans, pastas, and gallons and gallons of milk and juice. As volunteers from the church unload the truck, others quickly sort the food into single-family grocery boxes to put into each car. 

“Our intention here is to provide food to those who truly need it,” says Ruben Herrera, pastor of Palabra de Dios. “With a lot of schools closing, no school means no food. There are a lot of families that are thinking of the first of the month. They don’t have extra. You take [these parents] out of work, they might not have enough to provide for their children.”

A White Pony Express truck drops off groceries at the Palabra de Dios CC grocery distribution in Antioch, CA.  [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]
Hilario Camarena and other members of the church unload groceries from the White Pony Express truck. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]
An Imperfect Produce box that was used to deliver produce is repacked and repurposed to distribute groceries. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]
Out of work construction worker Heriberto Santillan conducts hundreds of cars through the Palabra de Dios CC parking lot to receive free groceries. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]
Roberto Cordoba loads the trunk of a car with a box of groceries and a gallon of milk and orange juice each. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]
Middle schooler Diego Lecca (left) and high school senior Eric Santillan talk with a woman asking for extra groceries for her family. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]
Pastor Ruben Herrera stands in front of the Palabra de Dios CC in Antioch, CA. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]

Herrera and his congregation don’t regularly operate a food drive out of the parking lot of their church, but for many churches, nonprofits, and social service providers, the COVID-19 crisis has prompted a rapid reconfiguration of resources and efforts to address the needs of their communities. 

The truckload of food comes from White Pony Express, a nonprofit aimed at alleviating hunger in Contra Costa County. Over the past six years, the staff at White Pony Express have built and coordinated a growing food redistribution network, in which they “rescue” food with approaching sell-by dates from grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers’ markets, and redistribute that food to the county’s low-income residents via food pantries, schools, and community centers. “We take the abundance from areas that have more than enough and redistribute it to places that don’t have enough,” says Helen Jones, food rescue operations manager for White Pony Express. “Ultimately, our goal is to eliminate hunger and poverty in the county, to try to balance out the scales.”

But the COVID-19 crisis has brought a range of challenges to White Pony Express as it has to all nonprofits addressing food insecurity. With unemployment rates skyrocketing, more families are losing income and trying to get by with less.

At the same time, volunteers are more scarce due to social distancing and shelter-in-place orders, grocery stores have cut donations to meet consumer demand, and many distribution sites, like community centers and schools, have closed indefinitely. 

Given the ever shifting landscape they operate in, Jones and White Pony Express staff have been forced to carve out new avenues to bring food to the community. One of those is Palabra de Dios.

“Things are constantly changing,” Jones says. “There have been long nights, a lot of planning and juggling… It’s been a collaborative effort on the team. Everyone’s being flexible because this is a fluid situation. They’re just happy to be able to be out there serving the community.”

Food Operations Manager Helen Jones in the food sorting warehouse at the White Pony Express Headquarters in Pleasant Hill, California. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]

Meeting Volunteer Demands in a Time of Social Distancing

Under normal circumstances, White Pony Express receives and distributes about 6,000 pounds of food each day. Drivers of White Pony Express’s fleet of box trucks typically visit their donors throughout the Bay Area seven days a week to pick up leftover food — as well as clothing, toys, and other items — and bring them back to the nonprofit’s warehouse in Pleasant Hill. There, a team of volunteers are tasked with sorting the donations in a matter of hours before loading them back on the truck to head out to the community. Nothing perishable is stored overnight.

But now, one month into the COVID-19 crisis, things look a bit different at the White Pony Express facility, where about a dozen volunteers wearing masks and gloves tackle a variety of tasks: shucking corn, stacking milk crates, and sorting fruits and vegetables. Social distancing requires volunteers to spread out, and there are far fewer volunteers here than on a normal day.

Volunteer Mindy Bush says many of the regular volunteers have chosen not to come in during the current crisis. Understandably so, as most are 65 and older and therefore most susceptible to the virus. But Bush, whose health and work schedule allow her to continue volunteering, saw this as an opportunity to step up. “Usually I come once or twice a week,” she says. “This is my fourth time this week.”

Most of today’s volunteers are new. “This is my second day,” says Jean Lyons, a part-time grocery store employee, as she works across from Bush to sort rotten fruit from a case of apples. “I love being part of something like this, ” she says.

In the meantime, staff members have worked around the clock to tie up loose ends in the food donation supply chain, while many have joined the volunteers sorting food.

“I am working harder, and I’m blessed that I get to,” says Cliff Strand, one of the drivers for White Pony Express “This is a time when people need hope. They need someone to deliver that hope.”

Mindy Bush (right) and Jean Lyons volunteer sorting donated food at the White Pony Express headquarters in Pleasant Hill, CA. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]
Wendy Hershey checks the expiration dates on donated yogurt cups before repacking them for distribution. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]
Frank Krisnowich (center) loads a White Pony Express truck for delivery. Krisnowich was one of the many retired volunteers that White Pony Express relied on to pick-up, sort and deliver food prior to the onset of the the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the pandemic the majority of White Pony Express' volunteers have had to cease contributing to the organization in order to self-isolate. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]
A White Pony Express truck drives through in Pleasant Hill, CA. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]
White Pony Express Driver Coordinator Cliff Strand (center) and volunteer Jerry Coats on a delivery run prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 65 years old and with previous health conditions, Coats has had to cease volunteering to protect his health. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]
White Pony Express Driver Coordinator Kristen Crithfield unloads her truck at the Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa soup kitchen and food pantry in Martinez, CA. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]

Sourcing Food as Grocery Demand Spikes

The crisis has also affected where food donations come from, and where they go once they leave the facility. Since mid-March, White Pony Express has seen a significant reduction in donations from grocery stores, for instance, due to a spike in consumer demand. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and other franchises have continued to donate what they can, but intake from grocery stores has fallen by as much as 80 percent. 

This setback has required White Pony Express to lean on other donors, such as food distributors. For instance, Imperfect Foods, a San Francisco-based company that sources and resells edible food rejected by retailers has donated 140,000 pounds of food to White Pony Express since January. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the company has been ramping up donations to White Pony Express and other food-focused organizations.

“The issue is not a lack of food,” says Reilly Brock, brand storytelling manager for Imperfect Foods. “We often have surplus… Nonprofits like White Pony Express are a huge part of our safety net to make sure we don’t waste edible food, and that any time we have food, it’s going to someone who needs it.” 

Carving Out New Channels for Food Distribution

Under normal circumstances, a large portion of White Pony Express’s food supply goes to schools. As part of its food rescue program, White Pony Express identifies schools where at least 80 percent of the students receive free or reduced-cost lunches to set up school pantries. Twice a week, White Pony Express then delivers up to 1,000 pounds of food to these pantries, where parents are able to pick up groceries. 

But with schools closed, White Pony Express has been forced to identify new portals into communities that need food. That’s where Pastor Herrera and his church come in. 

In March, Jones gave Herrera a call. She asked Herrera if White Pony Express could use his church as a distribution center for families to pick up groceries. Not only did Herrera agree, but he promised to provide volunteers to sort the food and manage the redistribution.

Pastor Ruben Herrera distributes toys from White Pony Express at the Palabra de Dios CC in Antioch, CA. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]

“We want to be more than a church. We want to have an impact on our community,” he says.

For many volunteers, the food drive at Palabra de Dios has offered a way to give back to the community when they would otherwise be at work or at home. “God taught us to help people,” says Roberto Cordoba, a 23-year-old construction worker and member of Palabra de Dios. “If we have stuff already, then why take? Let’s give to the people who really need it.”

For much of the staff at White Pony Express, responding to the COVID-19 crisis has been a constant shuffle. It has required flexibility, and an understanding that conditions change from day to day. It’s also unclear how long operations like the one at Palabra de Dios can continue. For instance, Herrera, who works full-time as an insurance agent in addition to pastoring the church, has been cutting back his work hours to run the food drive. “If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be in my office working,” he says. “But this is the time for giving. We have it in our hearts to continue.”

But for many of the staff and volunteers, seeing the line of cars at Palabra de Dios offers proof enough that their work is necessary. 

“This is a testament to our mission — what we do as an organization on a day-to-day basis and even more so now,” says Jones. “We need to step up and provide for those who so desperately depend on us.”

Top photo: High School Senior Eric Santillan volunteers distributing groceries at the Palabra de Dios CC church in Antioch, CA. [Photo by Martin do Nascimento]