Panel addresses Yolo County food insecurity during the pandemic

The Winters Eat Well Yolo food distribution was moved to the Winters High School parking lot to account for the high volume of participants. Photo by Crystal Apilado/Winters Express

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By Katherine Simpson Express correspondent Leaders from various Yolo County organizations shared their experiences fighting food insecurity during the pandemic at a panel hosted by the Yolo County Community Foundation on March 3. Thomas Nelson, the panel’s moderator and Director for Yolo/Solano Kitchen Table Advisors, cited a 2017 study from Feeding America found that around 28,000 people in the county do not have enough food needed to live a healthy and active life. Panelists also addressed how food insecurity and the pandemic intersect with other issues facing Yolo County. “COVID has obviously exacerbated a problem that existed before the pandemic in our community,” Nelson said. According to Michael Bisch, executive director of Yolo Food Bank, his organization is feeding about 60,000 individuals per month although there may be duplications. Cathleen Olsen, founder and board member of Winters Farm to School program, said their program may be the largest feeding program in the country, currently serving 6,000 meals per week to children 18 and younger. Olsen said the pandemic helped the program reconsider how different items were distributed to families. “I have learned that access is an issue, even in this rich agricultural area, it is the key struggle,” Olsen said. “One of the things we noticed right away in the beginning of the pandemic, is suddenly we’re having to package meals instead of having those great salad bars.” Olsen said that giving out whole produce — like lettuce heads and baskets of strawberries — “educated parents about what is being harvested locally and brought them into the food system.” The pandemic has also brought light to other equity issues facing Yolo County like racism and poverty, said Aleecia Gutierrez, board chair at Mercy Coalition of West Sacramento which primarily serves houseless populations. “We’re putting field dressing on the gaping battle wound of food insecurity” said Bisch, “It’s clearer than ever that systemic change is needed” on issues from housing to labor to food. “Until that happens it’s like a fire drill.” “The benefit of the pandemic and also the Black Lives Matter movement is that it’s really shown a spotlight on inequality in our community,” Bisch added. Funders, volunteers and community were “activated by what they saw on the nightly news.” Gutierrez said, “I feel like there are just these broader systemic issues that the pandemic kind of brought into the spotlight.” Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, however, panelists emphasized that Yolo County has pulled together as a community. “We’ve relearned that people are inherently good and want to help and that people and organizations can act quickly and with generosity, and those have been wonderful things to remember” said Christi Skibbins, executive director of Meals on Wheels Yolo County. “We now have much greater capacity and capability to deal with food insecurity in Yolo County as never before,” Bisch said. “Our county’s response to the pandemic — lots of communities can learn from us.” Looking to the future Skibbins said that collaboration will be key going forward. “I just worry that as we all get our vaccinations and we get to go on vacations and see people and do things that we haven’t been able to do for a long time, that we’ll just forget about this …. I’d really like to work to make that not happen,” Skibbins said. Similarly, Yolo Food Bank needs more partnerships, “it’s the collaborations that what’s going to fight poverty,” Bisch said. Bisch said the food bank is looking ahead and hoping to re-tool its services based on clients’ actual needs rather than how the organization expects their needs to be. Skibbins said that COVID has been the ultimate test of their ability to adapt, but that she’s excited about the future, especially as clients for Meals on Wheels increase due to baby boomers becoming eligible for service. “We have the food, we have the volunteers, and you know, the heart of the communities to service these populations. What I think we need more of is the systems,” Gutierrez said. Gutierrez also emphasized the value of the human interaction after this time of isolation. Nearly all panelists emphasized the importance of being well funded coming out of the pandemic to continue providing services. “I hate that the answer always seems to be money but the financial generosity to our organization really helped us early on [during the pandemic],” said Skibbins. Yolo County Community Foundation is continuing with talks on mental health impacts of the pandemic on March 11, housing insecurity on March 18, and a panel on recovery from the pandemic on March 25. Get details on how to register at

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