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A pedestrian receives a free meal from a volunteer

Concerned citizens fight growing food insecurity

on October 16, 2020

“Four,” came the shout as another car filed into Richmond Police Activities League’s parking lot on September 22. This was passed down the line to a platoon of volunteers who rushed to assemble four food bundles as the car approached. Every Tuesday and Thursday since early September, thousands of these bundles, prepared by a variety of Oakland restaurants, are distributed to pedestrians and motorists – no questions asked.

Motorists and pedestrians file into the RPAL parking lot as free meals are assembled and distributed by volunteers. Photo: Thomas Brouns

“The first time, we handed out 500 meals. Then it was 750. Now we give away 2,000 chef-prepared meals between 11 and 1 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday,” said Courtney Cummings, RPAL’s youth ambassador coordinator. “That’s one meal every 3.6 seconds.”

On October 2, Richmond’s weekly allocation was bumped from 4,000 to 6,500 – a nearly 42% increase.

In 2019, before the pandemic, the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano County locally distributed 178,000 meals per month. But as COVID-19 swept the country and the job market faltered, slashing incomes, the number of distributed meals jumped to 270,000.

But it still wasn’t enough.

That’s why Richmond Main Street Initiative, led by Vivian Wong, teamed with local organizations and businesses with support from World Central Kitchen and Eat. Learn. Play. to ramp up efforts to fill this growing need. 

Dannielle Kyrillos, vice president for communications for World Central Kitchen, explained the origins of the program in an email.

“World Central Kitchen, formed by chef José Andrés after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake as a way to use food as an agent of positive change, provides urgent food relief after natural and manmade disasters and works to increase food-system resilience over the long term. Over the course of the pandemic, the nonprofit established food distribution programs in more than 400 American cities, including Oakland, which, in turn, supports Richmond.”

The meals provided to local residents include a vegetarian option. Photo: Thomas Brouns

With a grant from Eat. Learn. Play., World Central Kitchen is buying thousands of balanced, freshly-prepared meals from a number of Oakland restaurants struggling to stay in business. These restaurants then arrive at distribution points, including RPAL’s parking lot in Richmond, with carloads of meals. 

In March, RPAL had to suspend most of its usual services. So when Richmond Main Street approached RPAL to host and assist with the community event, they didn’t hesitate, said RPAL mentor coordinator Brandon Evans. 

The Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council and Kiwanis provide additional volunteers. “We take care of ourselves as a city – from City Hall to the community level,” explained Doris Mason, vice president of Richmond’s Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council.

Boxes of food donations are loaded into a pickup truck
Members of a local church pick up meals for 50 members of their congregation. Photo: Thomas Brouns

But the Richmond Main Street food distribution program is currently only funded through the end of November. Still, Wong remains optimistic. 

“I really hope I can court funders to benefit Richmond restaurants come winter or 2021,” she said. 

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