Windows up, trunks open: How coronavirus created the breadline of 2020

SAN JOSE — The line of cars stretches a mile through city streets. Windows are rolled up. Trunks are open. And with no questions asked, boxes and bags of free food are loaded in.

Through their windshields, drivers flash homemade “thank you” signs. The gratitude, the humility runs deep.

The coronavirus crisis has created the breadline of 2020, and in every vehicle, one after the other, is a story of despair.

“We’ve never been in a food line in our lives,” Gloria Reza, 54, who lost her job as a housekeeper at the Hilton Hotel in downtown San Jose, said Wednesday morning as she waited in line with her husband. “It’s a little embarrassing.”

Food lines are snaking through neighborhoods and causing traffic jams around the Bay Area and across the country. Even with shelter-in-place rules beginning to loosen, many laid off and furloughed workers fear they will remain destitute for months to come. These are the people who cater to crowds — likely the last to see full employment.

Over the past 10 weeks, demand for free food across the Bay Area has more than doubled, calls to food banks have increased a thousand-fold, and the number of those in need is only now peaking, food banks and charities say.

Hunger at Home, the charity behind Wednesday’s bread line in an industrial neighborhood in San Jose, caters to workers in the hospitality industry — the banquet captains at the San Jose Convention Center, the servers at the Marriott, the stage hands and lighting technicians at Levi’s Stadium.

The leaders include Ewell Sterner, the former general manager of the San Jose Convention Center, and Dinari Brown, the former executive chef in charge of food operations at Levi’s Stadium, who connected nonprofits with the excess food they knew was generated daily from hotels, convention centers and stadiums. Their volunteers come from the ranks of their former colleagues, including out-of-work chefs and chocolatiers preparing cooked family meals handed out Wednesday. Paul Bernardt, executive chef for The Lodge at Pebble Beach, was one of them.

Jorge Vargas was first in line Wednesday. He’s quick to tears.

SAN JOSE, CA – MAY 20: Jorge Vargas, 56, of Sunnyvale, poses for a portrait before receiving food and essential items at a free food give-away by the nonprofit Hunger at Home in San Jose, Calif., on May 20, 2020. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

When coronavirus struck and restaurants closed, he lost his jobs as a server at the San Jose Marriott downtown, where he had worked for six years, and at the Black Angus in Milpitas.

He supports his 83-year-old mother. His bank account was $107 overdrawn, his cable had been shut off. He had just $3 in his wallet and less than a quarter tank of gas.

“The last time I drove was last Wednesday, to come here, because I don’t have money for gasoline,” Vargas, 56, said.

San Jose, California – May 20: Jorge Vargas, a former server at Black Angus Steakhouse, cried while explaining the hardship he’s endured throughout his unemployment amid the coronavirus pandemic as he waited in a breadline at Hunger at Home, a nonprofit founded at first to help other organizations feed clients with surplus food from the hospitality industry. (Dylan Bouscher/Bay Area News Group) 

While he was waiting in line — he arrived three hours early — a Sprint agent called, threatening to turn off his cell phone if he didn’t pay $300. “If I had $300, I’d use it for food or gas,” he said. “You can check my credit report in January. It was over 700. But right now, it’s terrible.”

Across California, more than 4 million people have applied for unemployment over the past two months, which also includes $600 a week extra from the federal government as part of a stimulus package to help laid off workers pay their bills. But many of the hospitality workers in Wednesday’s line don’t qualify for unemployment because of their legal status, Sterner said.

These are not the poorest of the poor. You can almost tell by the cars they drive — newer model Toyota RAV4s and Jeep Cherokees and Ford hybrids, and the occasional older model Mercedes or BMW. They are the ones who were confident in January they could afford their $400 monthly car payments and their cable bills, the ones who might have been making $70,000 a year before the pandemic.

By noon Wednesday, Hunger at Home had loaded more than 20,800 meals into 554 vehicles, including 21,000 pounds of fruits, vegetables, chicken and other groceries. Much of it came from Sysco San Francisco that was stuck with truckloads of perishables when the crisis hit and parked three refrigerated trucks in Hunger at Home’s lot. The company vowed that “we are not going to give up one case of food in the dumpster,” Sysco San Francisco President Jane Brett said Wednesday.

“They have no jobs to go to, no money in their wallets, and no food in their fridge,” said Brown, Hunger at Home’s chief operating officer of the lines of people in need. “Word gets out and the lines get longer.”

The lines get even longer — 1,000 cars a day — in a food give-away run by Alameda County Community Food Bank at an Oakland parking lot across Interstate 880 from the Oakland Arena. The organization distributes food to 280 food pantries in the East Bay.

“Our food distribution the first week of the emergency was a half million pounds of food. Last week it was well over a million pounds,” said Michael Altfest of Alameda County Community Food Bank. “It continued to go up and up from there.”

Second Harvest Food Bank, which distributes food at 1,000 sites across Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, saw a 40 percent increase in need since the crisis began, from 270,000 people in February to 370,000 in April.

“It’s been a very dramatic and immediate increase in need,” said Second Harvest CEO Leslie Bacho, “nothing like we’ve seen before.”

You can see the need every Wednesday and Friday mornings on Berger Road in San Jose. It wraps around Gish Road and hugs the shoulder on Oakland Road.

Just before 11 a.m., Vargas, wearing a black ball cap with the logo of the Marriott hotel, was waved over after his three-hour wait to the row of tents serving food. He turned on his engine and checked the tank, and prayed there would be enough gas left to bring him back here next week.

Source: mercurynews
Windows up, trunks open: How coronavirus created the breadline of 2020