Venice Family Clinic, a nonprofit community health center, provides free and healthy food to patients and the community to help keep people healthy. It serves about 1,500 people a week at its Simms/Mann Health and Wellness Center, 2509 Pico Blvd. from 10 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays. Photo courtesy of Venice Family Clinic.

As COVID-19 limits people’s ability to safely visit food stores and pay for their groceries, food service providers have rapidly scaled up their operations and shifted to corona-safe distribution models to meet the growing need for affordable food. So while Santa Monica’s classrooms may be empty, there are resources to make sure children’s bellies are not, and to ensure that the same goes for homebound seniors and low income families.

“When March hit and COVID hit, everything changed for us. In order to decrease patient contact we went from farmers market style food distribution to prepackaged food, and we really needed to ramp up volunteers,” said Rigoberto Garcia, the Director of Health Education at the Venice Family Clinic. “It was a tight rope that we were walking in the sense that we needed to make sure everyone was keeping social distance, but we still needed people to create all those prepackaged bags.”

Prior to the pandemic, the clinic was serving 200 people at their free food market twice a month. Now they are now serving around 1500 people a week at their market at the Simms/Mann Health and Wellness Center in Santa Monica and are opening a second market in Culver City that aims to also serve 1500 people. Their packages consist of fresh fruit and vegetables alongside non-perishables and are free to all community members.

The Meals on Wheels West organization has also launched an impressive expansion of their service in response to the pandemic and has seen an almost 50 percent increase in clients. Meals on Wheels specializes in delivering food to homebound people including seniors, the immunocompromised, veterans, the formerly homeless, and people with disabilities.

“It’s a privilege to provide the ease of access to a resource that everybody deserves, because everybody deserves nourishment, and there shouldn’t be that many barriers of access to meeting your basic needs on a daily basis,” said Ashley McGullam, the Director of Development and Community Relations.

Meals on Wheels West has adapted its distribution model to protect its volunteers, staff members and clients, which has successfully prevented anyone from becoming infected by coronavirus. Meal delivery now happens three times a week instead of daily and frozen meals fill the gaps on off-days. No volunteer works back to back days, so if they ever feel ill there is a fresh team ready to work the next day.

The Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District has also stepped up to the plate to ensure that all children stay well-fed throughout the pandemic. They began a grab-and-go breakfast and lunch food service when schools closed in March and have maintained the program throughout summer. This services are offered for two hours a day on weekdays at Santa Monica High School, McKinley Elementary, Will Rogers Learning Community in Santa Monica and Webster Elementary in Malibu.

“This service has been a lifeline for many families who are struggling with food insecurity during this difficult time,” said Gail Pinsker, the Public Relations Officer for SMMUSD. “Breakfast and lunch is served and is extremely important to our families as in some cases, these meals are the only meals they have in a day or the only nutritious meals.”

SMMUSD is in the process of finalizing plans for the continuation of the grab and go meal service in the fall and will release this information prior to the start of the school year on Aug 24.

All three organizations, Venice Family Clinic, Meals on Wheels West and SMMUSD, recognize the important connection food and nutrition has to people’s wellness.

“At the Venice family clinic we are really trying to treat food as medicine and make sure that we are able to provide whole person care as we are working with patients,” said Garcia.

“Nutritious meals are very important to the overall growth and development of children, provide a healthy start to their day and ensure better readiness for learning,” said Pinsker.

Since COVID started McGullam introduced a phone reassurance service for Meals on Wheels clients, to check in on their wellbeing.

“One the days we would have delivered that we are not now, we are having volunteers call clients and provide an opportunity for socialization and do a wellness check,” said McGullam. “For many of our clients, volunteers are really the only people they see or get to interact with on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis. Being able to hear about the friendships and relationships people are making is really beautiful.”