In this episode of Who Belongs? we speak with Alex Boskovich, who is the Government Relations Officer at the Alameda County Community Food Bank based in Oakland, which collects and distributes food and other resources to about 300 partner organizations throughout Alameda County, including food pantries, churches, senior centers, schools, and other organizations. Just prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 the food bank had partnered with the Othering & Belonging Institute’s Civic Engagement Narrative Change project for some trainings on cultivating inclusive messaging and developing an identity that can bridge across community to build voice and power. The focus of the interview is on the sudden and very powerful impact that pandemic has had on the demand for the services provided by the Alameda County Community Food Bank, and Alex’s observations on how the crisis has magnified the gross inequities in society in how different populations are experiencing the pandemic when it comes to access to food.
About the guest
As a Bay Area native and member of Alameda County Community Food Bank’s Policy and Partnerships Department, Alex Boskovich is responsible for promoting strategic collaboration with government and community based partners for ending hunger and promoting thriving, equitable communities. This includes partnering with the Othering and Belonging Institute to ensure the Food Bank’s civic engagement efforts intentionally cultivate inclusive messaging and an identity that can bridge across our community to build voice and power. Prior to joining the Food Bank, Alex served as Senior Legislative Aide to Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan covering policy issues related to health and human services as well as community development. She holds a Masters in Social Work from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and is a proud “mama bear” of her 4 year old son, Ben.
foodnow.net - A database to look up food distribution points in Alameda County
accfb.org - The Alameda County Community Food Bank website which includes information on how to support their efforts
Alex Boskovich: Half of the people coming to us right now have never come to a food bank before and I think you're hearing those stories nationally and Alameda County is no exception. We're also seeing a lot of seniors coming our way against many who have never accessed food bank services before, but as our executive director would say, "These seniors are going to probably be with us for the remainder of their life."
Marc Abizeid: Hello and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs? A podcast from the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley. My name is Marc Abizeid, one of the hosts of the show and in this episode I speak with Alex Boskovich who is the government relations officer at the Alameda County Community Food Bank based in Oakland, which collects and distributes food and other resources to about 300 partner organizations throughout Alameda County, including food pantries, churches, senior centers, schools and other organizations. Just prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the food bank had partnered with the Othering & Belonging Institute's Civic engagement narrative change project for some trainings on cultivating inclusive messaging and developing an identity that can bridge across community to build voice and power.
Marc Abizeid: So, we'll talk a little bit about that, but the focus of the interview is on the sudden and very powerful impact that the pandemic has had on the demand for services provided by the Alameda County Community Food Bank. And Alex has observations on how the crisis has magnified the gross inequities in society and how different populations are experiencing the pandemic when it comes to, access to food. Here was our conversation.
Marc Abizeid: Well, I wanted to ask obviously about what the situation looks like now. I mean we've seen a lot of footage from different cities in the country like in New York and Los Angeles and Detroit, where you have lines of cars waiting to pick up boxes of food from food banks and other distribution centers. But before we talk about that, can you just give us a little bit of background on what the Alameda County Community Food Bank does or has been doing prior to the pandemic?
Alex Boskovich: So, Alameda County Community Food Bank, our warehouses is located in Oakland right off of the Hegenberger exit near the airport. We're a receiving and distribution center and the food bank pushes out that food that we receive through a network of close to 300 member agencies. Some are churches, completely volunteer run, others are soup kitchens or Head Start centers. We work through a variety of partners to ensure nobody goes hungry. Pre-pandemic, we were pushing out close to 32 million pounds worth of food. Additionally though, we have several programs, some that focus on children through a children's backpack program. We also have a CalFresh outreach assistance team. For those folks who don't know what CalFresh is, it is California's version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps. So, we have a multilingual team of outreach workers who can help to connect community members with this really critical program.
Alex Boskovich: It is the most effective anti-hunger tool that we have. And then also the food bank has a policy and partnerships team, which I'm a member of. And so we advocate for policies to not only prevent hunger but to stop it in its tracks as it's already hit the ground level. And so we do this at the local, state and federal levels. Also in partnership and support with our research team, I noticed that the Othering & Belonging Institute just launched a really terrific mat to uplift which communities within the state are more at risk or more vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic. And so we have a similar capability within the food bank and we also have a commitment to nutrition, for example.
Alex Boskovich: What we're finding is that hunger disproportionately impacts people with poor health indicators and poor health can also exacerbate. Oh, right. So, that's a very long winded way of saying the food bank runs multiple programs, both direct assistance, whether it's getting groceries into people's hands or connecting them to CalFresh benefits. But we also tried to work upstream. Again, that's where we really see the nexus of our policy and healthcare work.
Marc Abizeid: And that's an important to know because a lot of people think food banks, all they do is just distribute food. But it's much deeper than that just as you've described. So, now turning to the pandemic, can you tell us about how your work has shifted, how you've specifically been addressing the crisis?
Alex Boskovich: So prior to the pandemic, Alameda County Community Food Bank was already serving one in five County residents. So, that's approximately about 330,000 people. And when I say people, I want to be specific, I'm talking about low wage workers who really can't afford to lose hours or to lose gigs. I'm talking about our seniors who many, too many are on the fast track to poverty or already there as well as families and children. California, for example, has the highest child poverty rate in the nation when you take into account supplemental measure poverty. So, you can imagine when the pandemic hit, it has exacerbated all those, not just rates in food security, but also all the inequity, right. For so many of the clients we're serving they have been subjected to gross inequities, whether it's not being able to access public benefits to the immigration status, the legacy of racism and divestment into their communities and certain parts of Alameda County.
Alex Boskovich: So, now that we are in this, what we'd like to say, we're still in the acute phase of the pandemic. We are still preparing for a prolonged response because our call volume for example to our emergency helpline is still of 500 to 600% and at the ... what was it, we've now had two orders for shelter in place in Alameda County, right. At more recent peak, we were up 1000% on our emergency helpline call volume. And again, wanting to be specific about who's being impacted right now, half of those callers were brand new to the food bank and it really kind of tells the story of the reach of the impact of the pandemic and also what was already in place. We know for example, pre-pandemic, most Americans don't have access to, for example, $400 in emergency savings.
Alex Boskovich: We saw that last year with the partial federal government shutdown. So, we're experienced in terms of being an emergency response organization. We also have the long view right, of what these impacts can mean. But again, we're still very much in the acute phase and we're working in close partnership with community based organizations and government partners. You described earlier the images that have gone viral around food banks and the long lines. I believe it was the San Antonio Food Bank, had an image circulating around of 10,000 cars waiting in line. I think that's what's so painful about the coronavirus, is its just magnified inequities that were already in place, the people we're already serving. So, that's why it's really important. Our strategy is both to serve the immediate, right, but also again to think upstream. So, I'm grateful to be a part of Alameda County Community Food Bank because we already had a commitment to that work to ensure food is a basic human right and how do we prevent hunger for those communities that have been most impacted.
Marc Abizeid: Has there been anything like that? Like the images that you described being experienced here in the Bay area, as far as you know?
Alex Boskovich: Yeah, so. I should have given them a shout out when I was describing the overview of the food bank. But last year alone, our food bank received assistance from about 20,000 community volunteers. We can't do this alone. And I know that our associate director of volunteer services has been kind of capturing this history in the making. So some of the images that I've seen specific to Alameda County Community Food Bank have been those volunteers or our member agencies, again, so many of our member agencies are 100% volunteer run and they tend to be older and more at risk for hunger and poverty themselves that we've seen images of people across generations, race, ethnicity, religion, coming together to respond.
Alex Boskovich: And additionally from what I've seen, just personally I mentioned to you, I started working remotely about two weeks ago and I went to pick up a package at our warehouse in distribution that we had started. Just a few weeks prior one of those drive through distributions where people pop open their trunk and someone, you know with their protective gear, places the box in the trunk and closes it, that distribution near us by the Coliseum. I mean the line was just backed up all the way to the 66th Avenue exit. The latest numbers I saw from that distribution were close to 800 cars. And when I had been there two weeks prior, it was around three to 400 so you can just see, I mean every day it gets a more magnified, not just the spike in the foods and security, but the reach.
Alex Boskovich: Again, I can't stress enough that half of the people coming to us right now, have never come to a food bank before. And I think you're hearing those stories nationally and Alameda County is no exception. We're also seeing too a lot of seniors coming our way against many who have never accessed food bank services before. But as our executive director would say, these seniors are going to probably be with us for the remainder of their life.
Marc Abizeid: Are these mostly people who have been recently laid off?
Alex Boskovich: We have certainly heard those stories about layoffs and I've been receiving data left and right. I'm a former County employee. So for example, in Alameda County we have a two workforce investment boards and they capture that employer lay off data. I can tell you from their reporting that I've seen what once was maybe 5,000 layoffs since July.
Alex Boskovich: The last time I saw it's closer to 10,000 and it's all across the County right now. But there are certain areas that are experiencing more acute impacts to those layoffs. And again, we get back to the who, who is really impacted in this moment? And these are the people the food bank typically serves and builds community with. These are again workers making minimum wage, working multiple jobs, working families with children and seniors because so many of our seniors are continuing to work just to make ends meet. I think one of the stories that I will never forget from the pandemic and my personal role and the role of Alameda County Community Food Bank was when I received a note from my colleague, who's helping to staff our emergency helpline. And she had taken a phone call from a senior who had just been revived by an EMT.
Alex Boskovich: She had passed out for five hours. And her first conscious thought was, I need to call the food bank. I need help. And I just ... I will never forget that. I'll never forget my coworker who took that call in that moment in the impact. And I will never forget just what that was an indicator of, right. The impacts of the pandemic for sure but also one of the legacy policy items of the food bank has been our work around senior hunger. And so when our executive director says, we'll have so many seniors who are with us for the rest of their lifetime. I'm grateful that woman was able to call us and that she is still alive.
Marc Abizeid: Your food bank was recently profiled in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle and it starts off with a really a stunning story actually about, at the very beginning of the crisis that people were actually showing up at the warehouse in Oakland, which is not even a distribution center. And what I was wondering is what were people thinking when that started happening and, and how frequently was that occurring?
Alex Boskovich: Yeah, I know. And thank you for uplifting, that was great coverage that the San Francisco Chronicle gave to us as well as other Bay area food banks. I think my first response to your question would be to point to the data on our foodnow.net website, which is our public facing website where members of the community can go and look up a food distribution point near them and year over year we saw clicks to that website go from about 300 clicks to over 4,000, right. And again, because so many people who are reaching out to us right now have never accessed food bank services before.
Alex Boskovich: Maybe I'm just putting myself in those shoes, but I would do a Google search, right. Our address would pop up and when people need help, they rushed to it. So it was a quick indicator even though we have not been advertising and have never advertised, come to 7,900 Edgewater for food, people need help and they need it right now. And I think this is a testament to what food banks as a sector do, right? We're here for everybody. And when there's an emergency, whether it's created by a virus or a wildfire or a policy, people know that food bank in its name indicates help, someone who cares about my wellbeing and can help.
Marc Abizeid: Can you talk a little bit about how long you expect this to go on and if you think that you're able to sustain this level of demand for what you're providing?
Alex Boskovich: So, as you probably also read in a lot of the media articles are following some of our policy conversations. This is absolutely going to be a prolonged response. We've been communicating with our, for example, our state elected officials recently about how we are still in the acute phase, but we have to. I want to quote assembly member Rob Bonta who's a big champion for the food bank. He said, "We have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time." Right. And when it comes to the walk, it's a long walk, a prolonged response to put a timeframe on it. You know what we've seen, for example, from the recession, there's data that tells us there is still community members who didn't even recover from that. And I can't even imagine what those figures are going to look like for the pandemic.
Alex Boskovich: But we already know that, for example, a few weeks back, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which is a really powerful policy partner of ours, reported that for the Latin X and, and African American community unemployment is well over 20%, right. That's not a recession, that's a depression. And so when we look at previous depressions in history, that's years. And so that's what we've been sharing with our partners, their community members, our policymakers that this prolonged response, we're talking years on a timeframe and we can't do it alone. And that's why we have community literally in our middle name. People can support this work now and in the long run and we're going to need them, whether it's making a financial contribution to the food bank. So for Alameda County Community Food Bank, every dollar donated, we can leverage into $7 worth of critical food.
Alex Boskovich: But this also includes our policymakers, whether it's cities and counties helping us to establish pop up pantries. Kind of like the one I described to you earlier, over by us near the Coliseum, that's now reaching close to 800 cars as well as our state and federal policy makers. We have some policy assets on the table for the state. We're asking them for emergency funding to purchase food. We've already pushed out close to 9,000 boxes worth of state emergency food. We know we're going to need more in the long run. So, we have that ask and then of our federal partners again centering communities that have been impacted the most people of color, children, seniors, low wage workers. So, our ask of our federal partners at the moment is really, start with what we know works and that's SNAP.
Alex Boskovich: That's the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program working in California, Calfresh. We can do three things around that program. One, we should be raising the maximum amount by 15%. Two, we need to raise the four. Right now the minimum benefit for CalFresh is $16, we need to raise that to $30 and then thirdly, we need to suspend these really hurtful and damaging administrative proposals from the federal administration. Whether it's scaling back eligibility requirements, taking away credit that our seniors get for example, for paying their utilities. This should be a no brainer, right. Whether it's work requirements or just making it easier for programs to talk to one another. But we need SNAP to be flexible and responsive and so we need to stop those prior actions that were taken pre-COVID.
Marc Abizeid: We have a Research at our institute, who works on SNAP who studies snap and she had an interesting recommendation a couple of years ago in a paper she put out where she noted that that SNAP benefits, they're basically, they're not adjusted based on purchasing power. So, someone in California or the Bay area, which is really expensive, gets about the same as someone from somewhere else in the country, which has a much lower cost of living. And so, I mean that was one of the recommendations that I thought was really important and I don't know, I just felt like sharing that, but also trying to get an idea from you, if one of the things that your food bank is maybe wary of, is not receiving all the resources that you need in order to continue providing the support for the organizations that you partner with.
Alex Boskovich: Yeah, I appreciate you bringing up the cost of living impact of the Bay area. That narrative has not gone away. And so, SNAP or the National School Lunch Program, it does not reflect the true cost to buy food, to keep food in the fridge or on the table for low income individuals. As far as resources for food banks, what I've heard from our policymakers and our associations is that this is a multi-phase approach and we're taking it one step at a time and we continue to message out that we are still in the acute phase. So, we have to address that. But we also have to be planning and putting together the pieces for a prolonged response. And so I know for example in California's Legislature, they're just beginning some of those talks right now in the Senate and the Assembly, they've just convened their coronavirus related budget committees.
Alex Boskovich: So we're in constant conversation with them as well as the governor's office and at the federal level, I believe I just saw come across my phone that the Senate just passed, I believe they're calling it, Cares 3.5 or something like that. Essentially the forth effort, right. To pass another large federal package. We simply cannot relent, and I think what I've really seen at Alameda County Community Food Bank, we are so grateful for all the attention and support people are bringing to us and what I have to constantly uplift is that again that community piece, Alameda County Community Food Bank is also a network of food and feeding partners across different systems, across different identities. Again, whether it's your local health clinic or to your soup kitchen, to school districts.
Alex Boskovich: I didn't mention the fact that due to COVID, we've established within the last month 10 partnerships with local school districts to integrate emergency shelf-stable groceries into their school meals that they're distributing, we're all in this together, right. So, we have great diversity in reach within the food bank network. And the same goes for also our policy in our upstream work and our commitment to equity inclusion. Whether it's advocating for SNAP or against public charge. The policy fight also has to be an integrated one where we really think about those bridges. And then also what is the strategic narrative that we're building. And you might notice the language I'm using, right before COVID hit, we had just completed two trainings with the Othering & Belonging Institute around your civic engagement narrative for change where we've gone over these concepts about Othering & Belonging, and who belongs to one another, who's othered in our community.
Alex Boskovich: And we can't lose sight of that in both the acute and prolonged response to this pandemic. And my hope is that through the budges we already have in the ones that we're building right now, and again, just uplifting this narrative, right about who this pandemic is impacting and how we're responding. I really hope will come out on the better side of things. This is our opportunity to really do some major resetting in terms of policy and outreach and then also uplifting what was already really working and putting it on the table hand in hand with our community. I guess I shouldn't say hand in hand, right. We're still a shelter in place.
Marc Abizeid: Let's say some of our listeners are ... they're hearing what you're saying and they want to contribute in some way, either by volunteering or making contributions. What would you encourage them to do? Where would you encourage them to go?
Alex Boskovich: Well, if you're interested in supporting Alameda County Community Food Bank, please visit our website accfb.org. Again, every dollar donated can be leveraged into $7 worth of critical food and we are again serving a huge number of people right now. Prior to COVID, we're serving one in five. That is absolutely growing. Individuals can also support our food bank by getting connected with our volunteer services team. We're starting to match individual volunteers with our member agencies. Again, most of these agencies tend to be grassroots, committed, caring volunteers, giving it their all, but they can't do it alone.
Alex Boskovich: And so I just got an update from volunteer services that we've matched over a hundred community members to get food to the people. And then our kind of last ask right now for support is really on that policy front, help be a voice, help us magnify the message that this is a prolonged response, that it's going to take big policies, solutions and everyone partnering together from local to federal and that we can't lose focus of who is most impacted in this moment, right. People of color, children, seniors, these are the folks that we serve all the time prior to COVID and now the need is only exacerbated. And so we really have to be specific about who we're speaking, not for and with.
Marc Abizeid: Have you had to turn or not you personally, but your partners, have they had to turn people away because the demand was too high, I mean the centers?
Alex Boskovich: We are fortunate that a majority of our member agency network is operational and serving. With that said though, we have had reports of food running out for that particular day. So, it's important for your audience to know. That's why when people call our emergency helpline or visit foodnow.net, we offer more than one referral. And that's why we're working so expeditiously on all fronts, advocating for the dollars to get more food boxes, constant communication with our County Emergency Operations Center, whether it's to deploy disaster service relief workers or identify other areas of partnership.
Marc Abizeid: I've been hearing a lot about the potential for a disruption in the food supply chain. For example, it could be either on the farms themselves, among the farm workers, a lot of migrant farm workers are working without any sort of protection and the spread of a virus could also threaten people's food supply. And then also at distribution centers at li Safeway recently, I don't know if you've heard, and Tracy, they had an outbreak at one of their large warehouses where more than 50 employees got sick and one person actually died. And then there were ... and then the Safeway Distribution Center distributes food to Safeway's throughout California and the Northwest. And there were reports of shortages and produce and stuff. So is that something that you're also thinking about and have plans and preparations for?
Alex Boskovich: Oh yes. So, I'll start with first, our own personal safety measures that we're taken at the food bank. We work in pretty lockstep with the Alameda County Emergency Operation Center, which brings us closely to the folks in public health department to make sure that our staff and our member agencies have the equipment that they need, that we are following the shelter and place orders to ensure we are distributing food safely and most importantly taking care of our staff and our partners. So, we have those protocols and policies. And again, it's just, everything's a constant feedback loop, right. We've seen changes to the public health order just recently, for example, around the guidance around masks. But to your earlier point about disruptions in the national food chain, certainly food banks like other food entities, whether they're grocery stores or restaurants, we're all kind of feeling those ripple effects right now.
Alex Boskovich: Both the pressure on our food systems as a whole, as well as distribution patterns. What I will say is our inventory is strong. We have seen changes to some of the products we've received, but we're still able to safely serve the community. But we always welcome partners at those, for example, large donor levels to help us with certain items. Protein in particular. Again pre-COVID protein items are always an important need in our community. And so we've had partners come to the table to help us with really key staple items like you know, beans or canned tuna, canned chicken, peanut butter, to ensure we're also providing a good mix of product right now. So, Alameda County Community Food Bank, our food is safe and is reaching community members in need, but we're absolutely aware of the trends happening both at the national and state level. And I work close partnership with our associations as well as our public health to ensure safe food and we're following the policies appropriately.
Marc Abizeid: And that concludes our interview with Alex Boskovich, the government relations officer with the Alameda County Community Food Bank. We'll share the links that she provided for people interested in supporting their efforts on our website at belonging.berkeley.edu/whobelongs. They will also post a transcript of this interview. Thank you for listening.