Tulare County’s most vulnerable turn to schools for food in COVID-19 crisis

VUSD offers grab-and-go lunch and breakfast as the response to the coronavirus keeps students home into April, perhaps longer

By Kaitlin Washburn

VISALIA – Efforts to thwart the spread of the novel coronavirus, including school closures, social distancing efforts and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent shelter-in-place mandate, have made life complicated, especially for Tulare County’s most vulnerable populations.

Access to food has been even more difficult for some, such as students who rely on meals from school, people who depend on food pantries and older people who can’t leave their homes as they are more likely to become seriously ill or die from contracting COVID-19.

To address this need, local organizations and agencies are doing what they can to ensure those people still get food.

COVID-19, a strain of the coronavirus, is a respiratory disease rapidly spreading around the world. There are over 360,000 confirmed cases worldwide, 41,026 in the U.S., over 1,800 in California and 16 in Tulare County, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

School meals

Visalia Unified School District closed schools to help curtail the spread of COVID-19. And while the plan was to reopen April 13, after spring break, Newsom said in a recent address that as coronavirus continues to spread, there’s a chance students won’t be returning to school before summer starts.

While most acknowledge that is a pragmatic choice, the logistics have been trying on students and their families, especially those who depend on getting two of their daily meals from school each week.

To address that need, Visalia Unified is providing grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches and optional school work at 16 locations and seven bus stops throughout the district.

Dr. Tamara Ravalín, the superintendent of Visalia Unified, said that on the first day of the program, the district prepared 2,500 breakfasts and lunches. That figure was based on the usual demand for the district’s meal program during the summer, Ravalín said.

But last Wednesday, the turnout was overwhelming. Every location quickly ran out of food and school work. So the next day, the district doubled the number of meals to 5,000, and on Friday, district staff handed out 6,400 meals.

Visalia Unified is also giving out packets of school work for students of all grades, from transitional kindergarten to high school. Ravalín said those packets especially benefit families who don’t have internet access or computers.

Elyse Rodriguez, a medical assistant, has taken off as much work as she can so that she can be home with her two young children. She said she’s grateful that the school district is providing learning materials for her son, Jesus, to keep up his schooling.

“I’m worried most for my son’s education, he just started kindergarten,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez was one of many parents who visited Houston Elementary on Thursday to pick up food and school work.

This venture outside was risky for Rodriguez and Jesus as they both have weak immune systems. She’s keeping her family home as much as possible and rationing the gloves and face masks Jesus wears to stay healthy.

“I can’t believe this is happening, I don’t understand why there weren’t any systems in place to deal with this outbreak,” Rodriguez said.

Aside from the pick-up locations throughout the area, Visalia Unified is also delivering meals to the bus routes out in the rural areas of the school district. Families wait at the bus stops and the district drops off meals and curriculum packets.

Ravalín said Visalia Unified is also figuring out how to continue providing meals through spring break, which the district doesn’t normally do.

“My hope is that by May we can come back together, even if it’s just for a couple weeks at the end of the school year,” Ravalín said. “Schools are social safety nets for our students, giving out meals and curriculum packets is not enough.”

Ravalín said the success of this program is all thanks to the district staff.

“It’s been quite an effort, we have an amazing staff and they’ve really stepped up,” Ravalín said. “It’s taken a lot of work to get this together so quickly and that’s because of our dedicated staff who cares a lot.”

The district plans to continue offering the grab-and-go meals for as long as possible. Currently the sites are open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The locations are set up for both walk-up and drive-thru pick-ups.

Food banks and pantries

Mary Jane Jennings, director of Visalia Emergency Aid Council, said for nearly nine decades, her organization has helped people through a number of devastating events. But this time, she’s noticed the clientele has been different as the coronavirus continues to spread and impact people’s livelihoods.

“Our organization has been around for 89 years and has seen economic recessions, droughts, a citrus freeze. But COVID-19 has been something different,” Jennings said. “It’s a different face that we are seeing who need our services. It’s the families who had two incomes last week, who had parents who worked in food service, and this week they have no income at all.”

Normally, Visalia Emergency Aid’s food pantry gives out roughly 50 baskets of food a day. On Friday, they handed out 250. To encourage social distancing, the pantry is only giving out food via a drive-thru system.

“It’s hit our pantry hard. We are working really hard to stay open and keep food in our pantry and get it to those who need it,” Jennings said.

Visalia Emergency Aid had to close its thrift shop, which is the organization’s main source of money, and lay off those who work for it, Jennings said. They also had to lay off the part-time staff we have at the food pantry. But a handful of young volunteers still show up daily to help at the pantry.

“We are not so much worried about running out of food as we are about keeping us staffed and open,” Jennings said. “We hope to be able to help as much as we can.”

Jennings said that to those who are wondering how they can help, she encourages people to check in on their parents, their neighbors and to make a monetary donation if they can.

For people who are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, such as elderly people and those with compromised immune and respiratory systems, Jennings encourages them to ask a family member or a neighbor to pick up their food for them.

FoodLink Tulare County is another local organization ensuring people can get access to food. As a designated emergency disaster organization, the food bank will remain open throughout the crisis.

But FoodLink is adapting how it gets food to people. Food pantries around the county have shut down to help thwart the spread of the coronavirus, and FoodLink is doing what it can to make sure people in those communities are still getting food.

Andrea Kelly, community engagement coordinator for FoodLink, said the food bank is limiting how many people show up to distribution sites.

“We are trying hard to especially get food to the rural and unincorporated communities as it’s a little more challenging for them to get access to food,” Kelly said. “We are doing distributions in those areas, by appointment only and in a drive thru style so that people aren’t interacting. We will continue to try to be creative in our ways of distributing things.”

Kelly said there are a number of ways that people can help. For starters, FoodLink is encouraging people to stop stockpiling when they shop at the grocery store as it’s hindering people’s ability to access food and impacting those who really need it.

“The hoarding doesn’t help the situation, all it’s doing is aggravating the situation,” Kelly said.

As people have been quarantining to stay safe, Kelly said FoodLink has also lost volunteers in the process.

“We are encouraging people who can volunteer to volunteer and encouraging people to donate money if they can. We are also encouraging farmers to make donations if they can,” Kelly said.

To help out FoodLink, click here to volunteer, to donate food, to donate money to COVID-19 relief fund. For Visalia Emergency Aid Council, click to volunteer, to donate money, to donate food or clothes.

If someone is in need of these services, here is FoodLink’s food distribution schedule. Tulare County’s 2-1-1 website also has information on CalFresh, food pantries and home delivered meals.

Serving the older population

For senior citizens, who are especially at risk of contracting coronavirus and experiencing the worst of the disease, avoiding leaving their homes is key.

Micaela Lara-Lopez, communications coordinator for CSET, said while the organization’s eight senior centers, which provides meals to older visitors, have been closed, CSET is still providing one meal a day to senior citizens in the county.

In partnerships with local organizations, including FoodLink, volunteers are delivering meals to any senior citizen who needs them, on top of the regular Meals on Wheels deliveries. Albert Cendejas, assistant director of CSET, said the organization is dropping off food every Monday, and each delivery includes five meals.

On Monday, Cendejas said roughly 3,000 meals were delivered to senior citizens throughout the area. FoodLink is also providing additional staple foods like pasta, beans and rice.

“We are just doing our part to make sure they are getting what they need so that they can stay home and safe,” Cendejas said. “This requires a team effort. We couldn’t do this without our great partners in Tulare and Kings counties.”

To take advantage of CSET’s senior services and meal deliveries, visit their website, call (559) 732-4194 or email [email protected].

The Visalia Farmers Market is also doing what it can to support those who are especially at risk. The market, which briefly closed, has reopened after the state designated farmers markets as essential services.

Angie Warkentin, Visalia Farmers Market Association manager, said the market is now offering a personal shopping option. People can drive up to the market, and instead of getting out of their cars to shop, someone will do it for them, Warkentin said.

“We are also scrambling to get our website set up for online orders so that people can preorder their produce, show up to the market and we can put their order right in their car,” Warkentin said.

CalFresh users are especially appreciative that the market stayed open, Warkentin said. The market offers a matching program to help people who rely on CalFresh to stretch their dollars. If someone spends $10, for example, the market then gives them $10 to spend.

The Visalia Farmers Market has also taken a number of sanitary and safety precautions, which include selling only prepackaged produce, allowing only one customer at a time to approach a booth, creating lines that follow social distancing guidelines, providing hand-washing stations at the entrance and the exits of the market and eliminating non-grocery stands.

“It meant a lot to hear that farmers markets were deemed essential, it’s more important than ever to keep our farmers in business,” Warkentin said. “We might be relying on them more and more in the near future.”

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