By Casey Murray | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Richard Johnson helps other volunteers hand out food Aug. 22 as part of the weekly food drive at Shiloh Baptist Church in Oak Park. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

At 10 a.m. every Monday, a line stretches across the parking lot and out into the street in front of Shiloh Baptist Church in Oak Park.

It’s hot, but some congregate outside their cars in patches of shade. Some even bring their own chairs to sit. They’re killing time until the food pantry at Shiloh Baptist opens at 10:30 a.m.

The church is among the organizations the Sacramento Food Bank has entrusted food distribution to since it stopped doing so about 10 years ago.

Now, with changes brought by COVID-19, the food bank is entrusting Shiloh Baptist and its other partners with even more.

“We will continue to support (our partners in Oak Park), in fact, we are looking at growing capacity for those food agencies that want to and we’re actively looking for additional partners in Oak Park here that may want to take some of this other family service work on,” Blake Young, president and CEO of Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services, said at an Oak Park neighborhood meeting.

The food bank is closing its doors in the neighborhood after decades. It was founded in the Immaculate Conception Church in 1976, then moved to the buildings it currently occupies near Broadway in the mid-’90s.

But Young said that doesn’t mean they’re dropping the work. Instead of two office locations, one group of buildings in Oak Park and another in North Sacramento, they are consolidating all their operations up north. As part of the move, Young said the food bank wants to help fund and support more small organizations across the metro rather than provide and run all services.

“I think there’s a misconception that we’re leaving the Oak Park area and, actually, we’re not. We’re actually increasing our ability to serve the organizations that are doing that work already,” Young said. “What we really want to do is take a look at the organizations in Oak Park [and] say, OK, how can we add?” 

It’s similar to what the organization did in 2014 when it became the regional food bank for the county. When that happened, to achieve greater reach, the food bank stopped conducting food pantries and started shipping food to other organizations, such as Shiloh Baptist, for them to distribute.

But now the food bank is asking organizations to take over more than food distribution. It is trying to find partners to help take up its other services, such as adult education, parenting classes and clothing supply. While the food bank’s Oak Park location hadn’t served food in recent years, it had provided those classes and support systems.

Volunteers at Shiloh Baptist Church in Oak Park take grocery carts of food to a line of cars Aug. 22 as part of the church’s food pantry. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

“There are organizations right now that were doing better work,” Young said. “What I mean by ‘better’ is they had a greater reach and, actually, their programs – because they were focusing on that – they could go much deeper. Our food bank is so large, it was difficult for us to go deep in some of these ancillary services.”

Young said smaller organizations can connect more deeply with a specific community and really respond to its needs, which was difficult for a countywide service such as the food bank. Plus, the pandemic really put the role of the food bank back into perspective.

“I think most people understand that businesses, and particularly nonprofits because they rely on donations, have to evaluate their business, you know, from time to time, and really also have to say, what’s the most important thing?” he said. “Well, we learned from the pandemic that providing food, nutrition and nourishing folks is the number one priority.” 

Young said the food bank went from feeding 23,000 people monthly in 2014 to 250,000 people today and that the pandemic caused a significant increase in demand for food services. He said that about two months in, the number of people served doubled, from 150,000 to 300,000. Because of that demand, the food bank has to prioritize food access.

Young also pointed out that with the pandemic, the food bank already had significantly shifted services.

The Oak Park location closed during that surge in demand early in the COVID-19 crisis and later opened only for emergency services. The immigration and refugee programs the food bank runs went online, as did its SMUD assistance work, and the in-person parenting classes never resumed.

The location still is open only for emergency services, which slowly will be phased out during September. The classes Oak Park used to house either will be moved to the north location or the food bank will refer those in need to local organizations doing similar work.

For Richard Johnson, who runs the Shiloh Baptist food pantry with the help of his wife, Debra Johnson, and other volunteers they aren’t sure how to feel about the food bank leaving. While they understand it has to serve a much larger community than just Oak Park, they wondered what would happen to the people who used their services.

“It impacts the community because they did provide a great service to this Oak Park area. And I don’t understand why they thought that was no longer needed,” Richard Johnson said.

They know that there are other organizations doing great work, but also understand that sometimes running a small organization is difficult, and getting services like the ones the food bank provided off the ground can be a challenge.

“I know they want the other agencies to take on some of those roles, but that’s a difficult position to be put in, really, because you now have to go outside of what you’re doing to find people who would want to do (other services),” he said.

Richard Johnson, who helps run a food pantry at Shiloh Baptist Church in Oak Park with his wife, assists other volunteers with bringing food to waiting cars Aug. 22. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

A member of Shiloh Baptist used to help run a clothing service where people could come to find clothes when they needed them, but COVID shuttered it for a while. Then the person who supervised it moved away.

For small organizations that run on volunteer power, even running one successful service can be a big lift.

“Volunteers are wonderful when you get those volunteers that are really wanting to volunteer, but sometimes individuals, they may come today and they may not come tomorrow,” Debra Johnson said.

Because of that limited capacity, they’re focusing for now on keeping the food pantry, which feeds anywhere from 1,700 to 1,800 people monthly, up and running.

While Young admitted the food bank hadn’t been able to find community partners to support every aspect of what it used to provide, it is still expanding and collaborating to close gaps.

A list of the food bank’s partners providing services can be found online at sacramentofoodbank.org/fs-referrals. In the Oak Park area, La Familia Counseling Center, ​​5523 34th St., and Asian Resources, 2411 Alhambra Blvd., Suite 110, are two of the food bank’s referral partners for job training and adult learning.

Attention now also is moving to what will take the food bank’s place in its vacated buildings. Community members have expressed interest in seeing the buildings go to other needs, such as child care, affordable housing or a new branch of the public library. That all won’t be decided until after the food bank has put together a proposal for the city council and buyers express possible interest.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Casey Murray is a Report For America Corp Member and a Data Reporter for The Sacramento Observer. 

Casey Murray

Casey Murray