Visalia CARES for those who are hungry

City Council decides to use COVID relief funding to support local food pantries feed families affected by business shut downs and job losses of the pandemic

VISALIA – In May the Visalia City Council struggled with the thought of waiting until July to use its COVID funding for food relief efforts for small business owners forced to close their businesses and workers who were laid off or furloughed. Now, after two of the worst months for cases in the county, the city council quickly moved to unanimously approve a plan to provide nearly half a million dollars for food relief in the city.

At its July 20 meeting, the city council awarded $425,551 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to the Central California Food Bank (CCFB) to help local food pantries meet the increased demand for food distributions since the pandemic began in March. Through the first half of this year, the food bank has seen a 22% increase in meal distributions in Visalia compared to last year due to COVID-19 and a 50% increase across its total service area including Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties. More than a quarter (26%) of those in the last three months have been new clients who have never participated in one of CCFB’s distributions before.

“Central California Food Bank has received no other federal funding sources to help cover the increase in expenses,” the food bank stated in its proposal.

Most of the money ($320,169) will provide emergency food boxes to families through 10 food pantries in town: Bethlehem Center, CSET, REACH, Salvation Army, Seven Oaks Church, Town Meadows Apartments, Visalia Emergency Aid Council, Visalia Rescue Mission, and Visalia United Methodist Church.

The food bank will use another $77,000 to fund a program that provides a weekly bag of food to elementary and middle school students year-round. The program is new to Visalia but has been operating successfully in Fresno. The bags of food will be distributed at Valley Oak Middle School. About $28,0000 will fund a Neighborhood Market Program providing fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income communities in a farmer’s market style distribution on a monthly basis. The markets will be held at the Salvation Army, Seven Oaks Church, Visalia Emergency Aid Council, Visalia United Methodist Church.

One third of the money ($153,500) to CCFB will go toward administration costs.

“The requested funds will be used to support the Immediate and increasing food needs of families and individuals in Visalia whose food security has been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” CCFB wrote in its proposal for use of the funds.

The council had three options to spend the remaining $188,936 of the COVID funding: 1.) Extend the program through January, 2.) a grant program to help small businesses stay open; 3.) or provide short-term subsistence payments to low-income residents and the homeless. Staff discouraged the council from option one as it would be difficult to know if a need for food relief would still exist in January due to the pandemic and it would lock up all of the funds for future needs into one program.

“The ability to fully expend these funds for food programs is completely dependent upon a continued increase in the need for food programs long-term, which is impossible to predict at this time,” staff wrote in its report.

As for option two, councilmembers noted during their May 7 meeting that many businesses don’t take advantage of similar aid programs because the reporting requirements end up costing them more money than they receive. It was also noted by staff that this could be a duplication of a $7.5 million Business Assistance Program that was recently launched by the Tulare County Workforce Investment Board.

Instead, the council choose option three, which would help with those at risk of losing their housing prior to becoming homeless and that it could also be administered by the local non profits that already focus on vulnerable populations in Visalia.

“Many low-income persons will find themselves still far behind in their rent and utilities once the moratorium on eviction is eventually lifted by the Governor,” the staff report stated. “This short-term assistance could prevent the addition of these persons to the City’s homeless population.”

The City has until June 30, 2027 to spend the CDBG-CV funds which have been awarded; however, HUD has advised cities to move forward quickly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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