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National Guard troops arrive in Santa Barbara County to support Foodbank operations

National Guard troops arrive in Santa Barbara County to support Foodbank operations

Paper bags of food were arranged via assembly line at a Foodbank of Santa Barbara County warehouse in Santa Maria Friday by volunteers and members of the National Guard, who arrived to provide support amid a surge in demand for basic provisions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The volunteers packed "emergency pre-bags" of food as National Guard members hauled huge bundles of dried goods and produce back and forth with forklifts and pallet jacks. 

The bags contain items such as raisins, canned salmon and split peas and are slated for delivery to residents in North County, according to Foodbank warehouse manager Temo Garcia. 

Of the 20 National Guard members from Ventura County requested by Foodbank CEO Erik Talkin, 14 arrived at the Foodbank's Santa Maria facility on Foster Road, while six others reported to the Santa Barbara facility.

The initial troop request is for a two-week period, but Talkin expects a need for more.

They're among at least 1,000 service members activated by Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 20 to provide short-term help at local food banks, according to Army Capt. Jason Sweeney, a public affairs officer based at Camp Roberts. 

The National Guard's mission includes help during humanitarian crises, but this activation is different because of the pandemic, Sweeney said. 

The troops will serve a logistical role and not an enforcement one, Talkin said, adding that he requested them because of a sudden loss in volunteers at risk for coronavirus who were told to stay home. 

Additionally, Talkin sought the troops for their expertise in managing the Foodbank's routing software. 

In addition to helping at warehouses, troops will be making home deliveries. 

County Foodbank locations that normally service hundreds of families each week are now seeing hundreds line up for food each day, according to spokeswoman Judith Smith-Meyer. 

The nonprofit depends on donations of food from local grocers, but that dropped 50% since the pandemic as stores were depleted due to panic buying and hoarding, Talkin said. 

"We only have about 19 days of food left, so we're really pressing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get more food in here." 

Some local companies have stepped up. On Friday, the Foster Road facility received a donation of 22 pallets of fresh strawberries for a total of at least 21,000 pounds of the fruit from Central West Produce.

The Guard troops have alleviated some of the burden of the remaining volunteers, who are grateful for the help, Garcia said. 

Air National Guard Staff Sergeant Viana Cuyan, 28, of Riverside is among the 14-member contingent who arrived at the Foodbank. She is a member of the 146th Airlift Wing based at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in Port Hueneme. It's the first activation in her 10 years of service. 

Cuyan, who is a CPR instructor at a university and substitute teacher, was among thousands of nonessential employees laid off following Newsom's March 19 order to stay at home. She received a text notification from her supervisor on the day before Newsom's order. 

"Our main goal is to help people understand that we're here to serve them, that's what we we enlisted for," Cuyan said. "We have families just like them, we're on their side." 

This article has been corrected to include the accurate number of service members activated by Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

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