There are 146 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and two associated deaths in Santa Cruz as of May 13. 

One in five adults and one in four children in Santa Cruz County are food insecure, according to a study that was conducted by the Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB) prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Local officials and community organizations are scrambling to ensure the number of residents experiencing food insecurity doesn’t rise because of COVID-19.

“The last time something like this happened none of us were alive and obviously the world back then was a much different place,” said Santa Cruz Mayor Justin Cummings. “Specifically, one of the unique things back then was the amount of international and national travel was much lower. And now because of the fact that we are a global economy and we are so interconnected and there’s so much actual travel, it makes this a much more complicated situation to deal with.”

Santa Cruz City Council members, as well as organizations like Food Not Bombs (FNB) and SHFB, have been working to provide food for out-of-work residents and the county’s large houseless population.

Cummings said he and the rest of the council have been in constant communication with FNB and SHFB, as well as grocery stores and churches that are providing food donations. 

Co-founder of FNB Keith McHenry has helped those experiencing food insecurity since the 1980s. Once shelter-in-place began, he started ordering food and finding places to store dry goods in preparation for the expected increase in demand. 

McHenry fears food insecurity is becoming more prevalent in Santa Cruz. He thinks that if the virus continues to spread and the stay-at-home order remains in place, people may become desperate. 

“One of our volunteers witnessed a couple of guys considering breaking out a window to get food out of a restaurant,” McHenry said. “Our volunteer told them, ‘Hey, we’ve got food down here.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s great.’ And this was early on after the pandemic started.”

About 11 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2018. By late April 2020, that percentage doubled to 22.7 percent, according to a COVID-19 impact survey conducted through the University of Chicago.  

For McHenry, making sure people have their basic needs met is vital for Santa Cruz’s well-being throughout the pandemic.

“By being reliable with food every day, it creates a much more mellow, less intense atmosphere in the community. And we are really always fine-tuning the amount of food, increasing as more people come, things like that,” McHenry said. “And we have a very strict protocol of how to volunteer with us and people really get the whole social distancing thing. We’ve been handing out masks and bandanas to people as they come.”

Supporting Food Insecure Students at UCSC

At UC Santa Cruz, students still on campus have been relocated to College Nine, College Ten, Crown College and Merrill College, and were given seven day meal plans at the cost of a five day meal plan.

Dean of Students Basic Needs Coordinator Estefania Rodriguez has been working to adapt food pantry operations since the administration first made an announcement regarding COVID-19 on Feb. 29. 

“One of the big things we’ve been doing is rather than allowing the students who were coming into the pantry to grab every item of food themselves, we have staff do that and they would wear gloves and frequently change them, which we already do with some items, but we just expanded that to everything,” Rodriguez said. 

The UCSC Dean of Students Slug Support Pantry continues serving a variety of options from grab-and-go snacks to fresh produce. 

Rodriguez said prior to the pandemic students were welcome to grab food from the pantry any time during operating hours. However, the pantry has since changed to a system where students must make appointments to come and pick up food. Fifteen-minute appointments are available Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. 

Rodriguez, who graduated from UCSC in 2015, said food insecurity was one of the main reasons she began working as a basic needs coordinator.

“In terms of food insecurity, a lot of my friends and I dealt with that a lot. We all came from low-income families. We’re first-generation college students,” Rodriguez said. “The issue hits close to home and I’m just really grateful to be able to work with students at the capacity that I do.” 

Kednel Jean, Director of the UCSC Basic Needs program, works alongside Rodriguez. He said food organizations on campus have struggled to find ambassadors and students who are able to work during the pandemic. He said prior to the mass closures he oversaw 13 student workers, all of whom were laid off due to COVID-19.  

Jean said the staff worries that with the lack of workers and volunteers and the temporary closure of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), resources may eventually run out. 

“It’s definitely something we think about,” Jean said. “We have still been receiving produce from local farms but if this continues long term, I’m not sure what we’ll do. That’s been on our minds for sure.”

UCSC’s food pantries currently receive food from local farms, food donation sponsor New Leaf and the SHFB. Rodriguez said depending on the number of students using the food resources, menu options may change in the future.

“I’m kind of staying positive hoping that we don’t run into a lot of shortages. We’ve, so far, been okay. It’s been about five weeks. The first two to three weeks were really busy and then we had a little lull and then this week it picked up again,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been just paying attention to those trends and knowing when we do need to have a little bit more food in stock.”