Volunteer Beth Gendreau estimates that between fifty and sixty people show up for the Friday preparation and Saturday distribution. On Fridays, starting at 7:00 a.m., volunteers repackage bulk quantities into smaller units for families or individuals.
“We have volunteers who work all night,” explains Pam Labrin, “then go home, eat, shower, then come straight here and are here sometimes for six hours helping out.” Volunteers come from surrounding communities as well as Downey. Christian Aguilar, who helps out on Saturdays, lives in Watts and works at a warehouse during the week.
The method for Saturday distributions only needed to be modified slightly for pandemic protocols. Prior to 2020, a volunteer (often a high school student) with a cart was assigned to aid each family in line by loading up selections and transferring the food to a car. Under pandemic protocols, food was prepackaged to avoid unnecessary handling; volunteers also kept clients more separated.
Located on the campus of the Downey First Christian Church, FoodHelp is an independent organization that networks with a large array of other—business, civic, political, religious—organizations. This history and practice of cooperation is what enabled the group to quickly meet the needs of the growing numbers of people facing food insecurity.
“They really stepped up and helped the community,” says Downey Councilwoman Blanca Pacheco. “I’m excited that they were named Nonprofiit of the Year.”
Early in the pandemic, with California under strict lockdown orders, there was a “phenomenal” increase in donations says Wilkinson. The Dole Company in Ventura sent them several truckloads of produce. Gendreau recalls that some volunteers had to be on hand to meet trucks that arrived at 4:30 in the morning.
“We’re still totally surprised about where the food all comes from,” Wilkinson muses. “We have regular donors like a lot of grocery stores; but we also have produce companies that give to us every week. And sometimes they’ll give us like eight pallets, a truckload, and sometimes they’ll give us like sixteen pallets. We used to be happy with boxes of food. Now we’re getting pallets of food.” When donated food is beyond local needs, FoodHelp becomes a mini-distributor itself—sharing with community groups and churches.
Increased donations during the pandemic meant a need for increased storage. A $50,000 donation from the Kaiser Permanente Foundation enabled the group to erect a permanent 25-by-50-foot building. Supervisor Janice Hahn arranged funds for a walk-in cooler. Whole Foods Market donated shelving.