The California National Guard has deployed more troops to Santa Maria to help with food distributions as the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County continues to meet a demand double that of past years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four guard members were deployed to the north branch of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County on Jan. 4, the latest supplement to the cycling of troops that have assisted with operations since March 2020, according to California Volunteers spokeswoman Emily Matthews.

A total of 13 guard members now are providing aid throughout the county, including nine in Santa Maria and four in Santa Barbara. 

When the first deployment arrived in March, Foodbank leaders weren't sure how long the COVID-19 pandemic would render their services necessary. Ten months later, the continued support of guard members has proved to be invaluable, as the Foodbank has doubled its distributions utilizing roughly the same number of volunteers, according to Foodbank Community Engagement Director Lisa Skvarla.

"We've had their ongoing presence throughout the pandemic," Skvarla said. "At one time we had as many as 39 [guard members], and then it went back down for a little bit."

The Foodbank has distributed around 2 million pounds of food per month since the beginning of the pandemic, with weekly and monthly distributions offered at 42 sites throughout the county. 

While the demand for food dropped slightly in the fall, the Foodbank has continued to operate well above its usual service level with an 1,820-person volunteer force.

"In a normal 12-month period, the Foodbank distributes about 10 million pounds. By the time we reach the one-year anniversary of this response, we expect to have distributed 20 million, actually double our usual amount," Foodbank spokeswoman Judith Smith-Meyer said.

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Cars line up with trunks open and ready to receive food at an emergency food distribution Jan. 19 at Hancock College in Santa Maria.

While the troops have assisted in multiple areas including grocery delivery, driving Foodbank vehicles and managing orders, their assistance with overseeing operations has been most valuable, Skvarla said. 

"The National Guardsmen help with operational and logistical stuff in our warehouses, the stuff that the volunteers can't always do," she said.

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The county discussed withdrawing guard members once in the fall, then again around the winter holidays, hoping both times that the pandemic would have slowed down by then, Skvarla said. However, things have only become more dire, with COVID-19 cases spiking and continued shutdowns leaving more people unemployed. 

The latest extension submitted by the county will allow the current group of personnel to stay through the end of March, she said.

Guard members, along with personnel from AmeriCorps, National Civilian Community Corps, California Conservation Corps and Civil Air Patrol, have been offering assistance to food banks as part of Operation Feed California, an initiative to keep vulnerable residents fed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Matthews. 

The most recent allocation of troops was decided based on volunteer shortages and the level of community need. 

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A volunteer unloads boxes of vegetables at an emergency food distribution Tuesday at Hancock College in Santa Maria.

"Operation Feed California is an unprecedented commitment and collaboration with state agencies, nonprofits and volunteers," said California Chief Service Officer Josh Fryday. "Gov. Newsom has made feeding vulnerable Californians a priority during the pandemic, and the recent Cal Guard deployment to areas like Santa Maria highlights our continued efforts." 

In Santa Barbara County, additional volunteers from United Way and the Workforce Development Board also have bolstered the Foodbank's workforce during the pandemic, Skvarla said. 

"The assistance of the National Guardsmen in addition to other programs that have been sent to help out have made it all possible. We could not do what we're doing without these extra groups," Skvarla said. 

For a list of food distribution sites throughout the county, visit foodbanksbc.org/get-help

Those wishing to volunteer can also sign up to assist with deliveries, food distributions, prepack assistance and answering calls at the response center by visiting foodbanksbc.volunteerhub.com.           

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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