ECAP Food Bank Toiling to Meet Growing Demand Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Published On April 1, 2020 | By Sarah Belle Lin | Coronavirus, News & Commentary, Social Justice & Activism

As part of our ongoing Coronavirus coverage and the impacts on various aspects of our community, The E’ville Eye News revisited Emeryville’s only organization of its kind, ECAP (Emeryville Citizens Assistance Program).

ECAP is a nonprofit food bank located on San Pablo Avenue near the West Oakland border that was founded in 1985 and has operated from its current site since 1997. It was founded by former Emeryville City Councilmember Nellie Hannon, 82, and her younger brother and Operations Manager Bobby Miller, 76, a former Berkeley Police Captain.

Roughly 40 people line up to receive free food at Emeryville Citizens Assistance Program (ECAP) on Monday, Mar. 30. Over the month, the nonprofit has seen fluctuating food supply, including a drop in bread and canned goods.

ECAP is among a short list of “essential business” designated by Alameda County and has extended their regular hours to meet demand. They hope to continue doing so, but face uncertainties around their food supply, volunteers and mobility.

On average, ECAP serves over 200 low-income and unsheltered people per day, six days a week. This does not include individuals at a couple dozen local homeless encampments they deliver to, sometimes driving as far south as Hayward.

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has left a wake of uncertainty especially for our most vulnerable. The panic-buying, shelter-in-place and strict health regulations have all had profound impacts on ECAP’s services. The pandemic has also highlighted the need for better assets within the organization, particularly a more reliable fleet of vehicles.

Operations manager Bobby Miller, volunteer Billy Burch and founder Nellie Hannon discuss pick-up routes at the ECAP site on Sunday, Mar. 22.

Repercussions of Panic-Buying: Food Taken from Those with Greater Needs

The nonprofit is continuing to adjust to a rapidly changing landscape that has produced an unstable supply chain and strict social distancing regulations. Because of these, a call is being made for young and able-bodied volunteers to lend a hand during the week.

Every week, ECAP volunteers collect up to eight tons of fresh fruits and vegetables, dry and canned goods, poultry, desserts and even flower bouquets. They travel to Marin, Contra Costa and San Mateo Counties in their hunt for donations. Last Sunday, ECAP volunteers made a total of eleven stops to pick up food from grocery chains like Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Pak ‘N Save and Whole Foods.

“We figured when this virus situation started we were not going to be getting enough food,” said Miller. “Just the reverse happened. We’re getting twice as much.”

Jesse Williams, who lives just two blocks from ECAP, said he comes twice a week to get food if there’s a short enough line. “I appreciate them; everybody’s practicing social distancing, but they’re still open,” said Williams. “They’ve always got some decent food. They serve a lot of people, especially right now. They save me a lot of money during the month.”

Over the past several weeks, there has been dwindling supplies of some of their most important items like bread and canned goods. ECAP recently received only about a third of the food supply they normally get from grocery stores. Because of this, the organization has needed to get creative, like connecting with restaurants and caterers to compensate for these smaller inventories. Miller explained nearby restaurants that closed or are closing their businesses have donated food to ECAP.

“A lot of the restaurants have already closed or are closing and they have brought over a lot of their supply,” said Miller. “We figured when this virus situation started we were not going to be getting enough food. Just the reverse happened. We’re getting twice as much.” But Miller understands this supply stream will inevitably diminish as more places shutter.

ECAP is visibly well-stocked with produce and ready to feed the hundreds of people who lined up down San Pablo Avenue on Friday, Mar. 27.

Hayward-based group Hope 4 the Heart recently brought a truckload of food to the site. Chef and educator Joan Gallagher, of Nourish You Catering, has also donated hundreds of pre-made and nutrient-dense meals to ECAP over the past three weeks. “They truly are serving the mission of serving all those in need every day,” said Gallagher, who has worked with ECAP for two years. “They truly embrace them. I absolutely am going to connect with them in the foreseeable future, hopefully for years to come.”

As a frequent visitor to the site, Gallagher was disturbed to watch the number of canned goods and bread vanish so quickly. She said Miller told her there wasn’t any bread to give away in a recent past week. Gallagher expressed concern over the mass quantities of produce overwhelming the canned goods, of which ECAP was always in plentiful supply. She’s since decided to use produce items to cook meals for ECAP’s customers. “If people don’t have access to a heating source or can’t pay their PG&E bill [to cook], I can make it into something that’s delicious and nutritious,” said Gallagher.

There were hardly any canned goods available at ECAP on Friday, Mar. 27 due to diminishing supplies from grocery stores around the Bay Area.

According to the Alameda County Community Food Bank’s Director of Community Engagement & Marketing Michael Altfest, ECAP is one of the food bank’s largest network agency members. Alameda County Food Bank delivers to ECAP twice a week, making up 60 percent of ECAP’s inventory. There are concerns of diminishing food supply due to the coronavirus outbreak, especially since the Alameda County Food Bank has a large clientele base — serving over 250 food pantries, meal programs and shelters in the county. Miller said when there’s clientele will, there’s a way. “They intend to continue distributing this food if agencies like ECAP can stay open and do it,” said Miller.

“Our partner agencies are on the front lines with us during this emergency,” said Altfest in an email. “The communities impacted hardest by this are the communities we’re already serving – low-income workers losing hours or jobs, vulnerable seniors who depend on our groceries for a healthy diet and families with children who are missing out on school meals. We’re already seeing a surge in need, and we expect this to be a prolonged response. We’re working with ECAP and all of our agencies to ensure we’re meeting the growing need at this time.”

Whether or not ECAP will stay open will depend entirely on their incoming stream of donations. “If our supply is cut way down, instead of letting people get all-you-want, maybe they can have just one [item],” said Miller. “It’s governed by the supply that we get. Things can change every day. We may get to a point where there is such little food that we have to ration it and give it to the ones in the most need. We have yet to figure out a way to do that.”

ECAP volunteer Linda Kildare loads food at the Trader Joe’s in Alameda on Sunday, Mar. 22 to feed low-income and homeless individuals.

In Greater Need: ECAP Searches For More Hands On Deck

With changes in protocol, there’s a greater need for more volunteers to pitch in with food sorting, food distribution, pick-ups and line management. Miller is asking for volunteers to put in at least two hours each day they come in. Full-time volunteers — ECAP has about five — help three to five days a week. “If we can get another five or 10 full-time volunteers that would be heaven,” said Miller. He realizes most people with open schedules are seniors, but ECAP is open on Saturdays and Sundays, leaving no excuses for younger community members to stop by.

Miller is hoping for a chance to take some time off, starting with a day each week. “I’ve never taken a day off and it’s starting to catch up,” said Miller. The first thing he’ll do when he has a few days to himself is travel to an Airbnb in Redding, a place known for its natural beauty, and devote time to his photography, a hobby he said he hasn’t given enough attention to. His sister, on the other hand, would be hard-pressed to go a single day without ECAP. Miller said even on her day off, Hannon would inevitably show up, to work yet another day.

“It’s mostly elders running this program and young people should help these people out. Sometimes I’ll come here and there’s nobody helping them, but them.”

Because of the changes driven by COVID-19, long-time volunteer Sadia Glover decided to come in five days a week. Glover said volunteering is a way to give back to a group she credits for finding her a paid job elsewhere. “I was in need, I was very depressed and they needed help,” said Glover, now on her tenth year at ECAP. “I needed food and they offered to help me. Working in this place right here, I’ve ended up with employment ever since. Oh man, thanks to ECAP, with the services that they provide, it not only helps you with your survival, [but] with your food and everything else.

“We should be able to go to any community just like they can come right here in Emeryville and do the same thing. I give it to Bobby [Miller] and [Nellie] Hannon because they’re strong,” continued Glover. “It’s mostly elders running this program and young people should help these people out. Sometimes I’ll come here and there’s nobody helping them, but them.”

ECAP volunteer Sadia Glover worked line management to keep customers six feet apart as they waited for free food on Friday, Mar. 27.

ECAP volunteers are abiding by social distancing practices by asking people to stand six feet apart from another, wearing masks and gloves and handing items to customers. Before the outbreak, ECAP preferred “client choice,” and letting customers take items themselves. “We have had to close that process down,” said Miller. “We’re not allowing any clients to touch the food. We have volunteers who are all gloved up and have masks.” Because of these changes, the process has slowed down — but for a reason that’s hard to argue with. “I’m asking people to just be patient with us,” said Miller. “We have to protect ourselves and we have to protect them too. It just has to go a little bit slower so we can provide maximum protection for everybody.”

According to food safety practices recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19, but transmission is still possible through contact with a surface or object that has the virus on it and by touching one’s mouth, nose or possibly eyes. Because of this, “facilities are required to use personnel practices that protect against contamination of food, food contact surfaces and packaging and to maintain clean and sanitized facilities and food contact surfaces.”

In the market: ECAP raising funds for a reliable delivery vehicle

Last month, ECAP founder Nellie Hannon discovered that one of their vans had been stolen outside of her home in Oakland. With the help of their network and friends in the towing business, the vehicle was fortunately recovered a few days later — but without the battery, catalytic converter and back license plate. It was the first time an ECAP vehicle had been stolen, but not the first time Hannon and Miller dealt with vandalized ECAP property. “This is 100 percent preventable, this doesn’t have to happen,” said Miller.

ECAP founder Nellie Hannon and volunteer Billy Burch head to the next spot to bring in donated food for community members on Sunday, Mar. 22.

ECAP currently has four vehicles in its delivery fleet — a 1994 cargo van, 1998 minivan, a 2003 cargo van and a 10-foot box truck. After receiving the ’03 cargo van last October as a donation from Oakland’s Berry Brothers Towing (founder Bob Berry volunteers at ECAP), Miller retired one of their trucks, a ’97 former U-Haul truck.

According to Emeryville City Councilmember John Bauters, who has worked closely with ECAP and is helping pool funds for a new ECAP vehicle, $12,000 has been raised to replace ECAP’s ’94 cargo van. Bauters and Miller hope to raise at least another $10,000. ““The problem with them all was they were so old and breaking down quite often,” said Miller. “We would absolutely love a new or late model van. It doesn’t have to be brand new, but one that’s going to have many miles on it and is reliable. If we could catch one late model van, we would be happy. The old 1990s vans are just not reliable at all,” added Miller, who is hoping for the enhanced security features that come with newer vehicles.

He expressed increasing concern for his sister, who is now 82 years old, making long drives around the region. Earlier this month, Hannon stumbled onto some issues on the road during a pick-up in Hayward. The ’94 cargo van she was driving began overheating, leaving her stranded until Berry Brothers Towing came to save the day again. “I’m concerned about her going out in the old vehicles when they’re breaking down on her,” said Miller.

If you would like to chip in or have large minivan or truck in good condition to donate, please email John Bauters at jbauters@gmail.com. Their website that normally accepts donations is currently being updated.

All Photos: Sarah Belle Lin

Feature Image: Nellie Hannon, 82, and her younger brother and Operations Manager Bobby Miller, 76.

About The Author

has been writing for the better part of her life. Now she is reporting for two community newspapers and editing for an environmental journal at Cal. Sarah has written stories on local government, education, transportation, homelessness, and climate change. Sarah aims to highlight diverse narratives and is excited to contribute a fresh perspective to The E'ville Eye.

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