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California Leans On National Guard To Help With Food Banks


The coronavirus pandemic has put community charities in a tight spot. Volunteers are staying home, but demand for food assistance is soaring. A number of states have brought in the National Guard to help out, including California. NPR's John Ruwitch has this report.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Governor Gavin Newsom is leaning on the California National Guard to help food banks. One of those food banks is south of San Francisco in Silicon Valley.

CAMERON QUACH: So my day job is I'm an auditor with Ernst and Young.

RUWITCH: Lieutenant Cameron Quach oversees about 50 Army National Guard members in a San Jose warehouse run by one of the biggest food banks in the country, Second Harvest of Silicon Valley. The guards put potatoes, carrots, onions and fruit into delivery boxes.

QUACH: It's not the most heroic or spectacular, like, thing to be doing.

RUWITCH: But it's important, he says.

QUACH: Being in the National Guard and supporting the community in an emergency is, you know, exactly what the National Guard is both for and what I signed up for, so I was definitely excited to be actually doing something instead of being cooped up in my house.


RUWITCH: You might not expect that Silicon Valley is a place of need, but there's a huge service industry that supports America's tech hub, and that means a big wealth gap.

LESLIE BACHO: We really feel like we are seeing this tsunami of need coming. And this is really unprecedented.

RUWITCH: Leslie Bacho is CEO at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley. In normal times, Second Harvest says it helps feed about 1 in 10 people in the area. Now calls to Second Harvest' food hotline are up five-fold. And Bacho worries that the 50 National Guard helpers and 30 others at another location won't be enough as the virus spreads.

BACHO: Already before this crisis, we were serving a quarter-million people every single month. And now what we're seeing, since so many people have lost their jobs, is anywhere from 50% to 100% more people coming to our food distribution sites.

RUWITCH: Ramon Jaszanovitz (ph) is one of them. Before Californians were ordered to stay home, he could do about 15 pickups a day as an Uber driver in Silicon Valley.

RAMON JASZANOVITZ: And now I'm lucky if I can get one. It's that bad.

RUWITCH: So for the first time, he drove to Sacred Heart Community Service, a food pantry near downtown San Jose.

JASZANOVITZ: I came here for groceries - some eggs, ground turkey meat and vegetables and stuff.

RUWITCH: In addition to giving out more food, Sacred Heart started an $11 billion relief fund for low-income families. It received 1,500 applications online the first day, crashing its website. Demone Carter is director of community engagement at Sacred Heart.

DEMONE CARTER: It is a full-and-a-half-time job for me right now.

RUWITCH: But he feels fortunate to be employed and helping his community. Carter's other career as a rap artist has stalled. All his gigs have been canceled.

CARTER: (Rapping) This warfare is spiritual, psychological, geopolitical. Self-awareness is critical. Analytical thinking is on the brink of extinction. We so pitiful, trained to regurgitate the cud that they spit at you. Like, what did we get into?

That's the best you can get out of me on a Tuesday afternoon exactly in the middle of a pandemic.

RUWITCH: Carter is keeping his spirits up, and he says he hopes life will start to creep back to normalcy this summer.

CARTER: You know, the world has completely changed, and it can change again.

RUWITCH: John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRIEVES' "BLOODY POETRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.