Southern California’s High Desert is a sprawling rural and suburban region northeast of Los Angeles. Its terrain and climate make farming difficult, water is in limited supply and residents often must travel long distances to find job opportunities.
With a commitment to addressing these challenging circumstances, a team of community organizations created a robust food system in 2006 anchored by the region’s first food bank, High Desert Second Chance. Providence St. Mary Medical Center provided a grant to support the establishment of the food bank, which has become an important resource for the community. High Desert Second Chance partners with food pantries and churches across the region to distribute millions of pounds of food to residents each year.
In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the region particularly hard, the need for access to food skyrocketed. “We listened to our community partners, learned about the challenges they were facing and committed additional support to get food to those who needed it,” says Kevin Mahany, Director of Community Investment at Providence St. Mary.
High Desert Second Chance serves as the central hub of a massive food distribution system, but partners both inside and outside the region, including Providence St. Mary, play integral roles in keeping this system running. Food Forward, a local nonprofit organization, donated 2.8 million pounds of produce grown in surrounding areas that was distributed to more than 140,000 people in the High Desert. Ninety food pantries, shelters and churches offered to serve as distribution sites to get food to even more people.
Expanded operations in the region meant more people had access to food, but it also meant new challenges needed to be solved. Bryan Kawasaki, Communications Manager for Providence St. Mary, says the teams worked tirelessly to find creative and effective solutions to a variety of logistical complexities. “Because of the hurdles that our region’s geography presents, Providence’s investments aim to equip partners with resources they need to retrieve food from outside the region, transport it back to High Desert and distribute it in a timely way to individuals and families in vulnerable communities,” says Kawasaki.
Of all the challenges caused by the pandemic, the impact on the senior community was one of the most significant. When the statewide emergency order strongly encouraged seniors to shelter in place, food banks lost a large portion of their volunteer base. Additionally, many low-income seniors were now stranded at home and unable to get their own groceries and household items. They were also left without regular social interaction.
In response to this acute need, Providence St. Mary partnered with Victor Valley Community Services Council, a senior-focused nonprofit organization, to deliver food and household items to more than 300 seniors per week. A licensed clinical therapy student from Providence St. Mary accompanied the council staff on these deliveries to conduct a physically distanced wellness check and to offer seniors an opportunity to socialize and interact with a friendly, trained professional.
“We know that food insecurity is directly linked to poorer health outcomes. When the pandemic hit, it was Providence’s goal to invest in partners so they could not only increase the quantity of food delivered, but also find innovative ways to get food to people quickly to meet the growing demand,” says Mahany. “Imbedding emotional and mental health support into the food deliveries is yet another crucial way this network of community partners is serving those in need.”