Just two months ago, Chef Jason Paluska was slicing hamachi crudo onto hearts of palm, passionfruit, and coconut cream while grilling ribeye with trumpet mushrooms, sunchokes, and black-garlic sauce during regular dinner service at The Lark.

This week, deep in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic ​— ​which may decimate America’s culinary culture more dramatically than any other industry ​— ​Paluska remains in the kitchen. But instead of prime cuts and sushi-grade seafood, he’s cooking up massive pots of Tex-Mex chili and chicken pozole verde, throwing braised pork enchiladas together with beans and rice, and packing it all into to-go containers that will feed the homeless, veterans, seniors, and other at-risk segments of Santa Barbara County.

It’s all part of an emerging network of restaurants, social workers, and nonprofit foundations that are trying to fill the region’s most vulnerable bellies while also keeping chefs employed and protecting the larger food chain of farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. These efforts are complex, very fluid, and still in need of sustained funding. But just a few weeks into the projects ​— ​the primary ones being umbrellaed under the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County and SB ACT’s Community Food Collaborative, with New Beginnings and City Net as partners ​— ​many feel that the work is paving the way for food-distribution solutions that will persist even when the pandemic dies down.

“When you think about it, as a dude who cooks in restaurants, we’re not really contributing to the greater good,” reflected Paluska on his new reality. “We feed people who are hungry and like the menu, but I’ve always had this internal struggle about what am I doing that’s good for the world by selling Brussels sprouts. This is a good opportunity for me to connect with that, and it’s not really that hard for us. We already cook for a living.”

As of this week, The Lark is preparing the batch meals for the Foodbank, most of which go to seniors who can warm the dishes up at home. Meanwhile, Chef Nik Ramirez at Loquita is making the Community Food Collab meals, which include sandwiches, salads, noodles, and other foods designed to be enjoyed with minimal to zero extra prep.

Also contributing to the effort is Jennifer Shively of Lunchbox, which she started in 2001 as a meal-delivery service for offices. She’s been pumping out casseroles in the last few weeks, based on ingredients donated by Sysco as well as unsold produce rounded up by Veggie Rescue. “We wanted to make them something warm and comfort food-y,” said Shively, who’s been able to keep her three employees on staff due to these orders.

“The point of the program is three-fold: feed people who need help, get restaurant people back to work, and support the local food chain,” said Sherry Villanueva, owner of Acme Hospitality, which runs both The Lark and Loquita. She laid off 345 of her 350 employees at the start of the pandemic and believes there is plenty of opportunity to expand this program beyond her establishments.

She was shocked to learn that there are 13,000 children in Santa Barbara County whose only guaranteed meal each day is the free lunch they get at school. “Thirteen thousand kids!?! It just makes me want to cry,” she said. “The need is probably much larger than one restaurant would ever fill.”
Though it’s nowhere near the volume that these restaurants are accustomed to, the meals are bringing money in from the foundational support and keeping a core team of chefs busy.

“Restaurants are just desperately trying to stay alive, both in the psyche of their customer base as well as financially. We’re still here. We’re still fighting,” said Villanueva. “If we can bring some people back to work and we can support our suppliers, then that’s a program we are willing to invest our time into, and we’re serving the community at the same time. It feels like it is the best use of our limited resources, better than doing a takeaway program that takes tons of work and doesn’t have a lot of return.”

City Net’s Chuck Reed delivers a meal to Martin Travensat, a homeless man who spends much of his time on State Street.

Community Food Collab’s Primary Players

Spearheading the coordination of the newest program, the Community Food Collaborative, is the Santa Barbara Alliance for Community Transformation (SB ACT), which was founded in 2005 to address homelessness. Inspired by a similar program in Cambridge, Massachusetts ​— ​and working with a network of 38 partners and a steering committee of people from for-profit, nonprofit, and government backgrounds ​— ​SB ACT raised an initial $40,000, with $25,000 coming from the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, which is also funding national campaigns during this time.

“The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts understands how important Santa Barbara was for Julia throughout her lifetime,” said the foundation’s chair, Eric Spivey. “We are honored to support this important initiative.”

The money will pay for 250 prepared meals twice a week from Loquita, at $10 per meal, running for eight weeks from April 20 to June 22. The majority will go straight to homeless people on the streets and in their cars, as well as to a growing population of formerly homeless people who have been housed in motels during the shelter-in-place orders.

“If additional funds are raised, then we will expand meals to more days a week or to other target populations in Santa Barbara County based on funder interest,” said SB ACT’s Barbara Anderson, who’s posted more details at sbact.org/cfc.

With SB ACT as the backbone and Loquita chefs making the food, the food is distributed by New Beginnings and City Net, two organizations that have greatly expanded their capacities during the pandemic.

New Beginnings, which also offers low-priced counseling services, works with veterans and the “vehicular homeless.” Indeed, the organization’s Safe Parking Program, which arranges overnight parking for those who live in cars, has been copied by other communities nationwide. They are passing out food from their office at 324 East Carrillo Street on Tuesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon and delivering meals to the veterans who live at Johnson Court.

The nonprofit’s director, Kristine Schwarz, is also buying $1,000 worth of food that doesn’t need to be cooked and getting donations via the Amazon Wish List Registry and the United Way. “I buy a lot of peanut butter. I buy a lot of tuna fish. I buy a lot of turkey jerky. I buy a lot of fruit and a lot of water,” said Schwartz. “We are finding people are saying we don’t have food. We used to do one big food distribution once a month. Now we are doing it twice a week.”

She believes the need is going to persist even as businesses open again. “The food insecurity is probably going to last for a while,” explained Schwarz. “It will really come down to funding. Everything is moving at breakneck speed in terms of funding. The guidance can’t keep up with the changes.”

City Net, which began in Anaheim but expanded to Santa Barbara a few years ago, deals with the most critically homeless people in the city. During the pandemic, they’ve focused on feeding clients who have successfully found housing, moving the most vulnerable into motels (about 15 so far), and staying in touch with the folks who hang out on the 400 to 800 blocks and 1200 block of State Street. Overall, they help about 65 people and are passing out 60 meals on Tuesday and Friday mornings in teams of two, with the opportunity for case management conversations, as well.

It’s allowing us to be able to check in on our clients when the other supportive services aren’t available,” said Emily Koval, City Net’s program supervisor. She’s also fielding food donations from the Salvation Army, PATH Santa Barbara, and Chick-fil-A.

“We’ve never done food distribution before,” she said, noting that clients typically use food stamps programs to survive. “They’re still able to do that, but the population is vulnerable, and getting into supermarkets is hard for anyone these days.”

Koval’s clients are excited to be getting meals made with creativity and care from the Acme chefs. “They are pumped,” she said. “It’s definitely a morale booster.”

New Beginnings’ Safe Parking Program is considered a national leader for what to do with the “vehicular homeless.” Now they’re feeding those clients too, as the nonprofit’s Rhandi Lachonce unloads meals to pass out last week.

Foodbank Outreach

The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County’s main mission is food distribution, which is usually done via 50 distribution sites across the county. However, with shelter-in-place orders keeping people at home, particularly the at-risk elderly population, the Foodbank immediately shifted into a personal delivery model and has already visited more than 8,200 households to date. The service is for anyone 60 or older, 55 with a disability, or any age with a severe medical condition.

The first meals came from Lunchbox, said the Foodbank’s Lacey Baldiviez, and were very well received. “The residential facility asked for the name of the vendor so they could write thank-you notes,” she said.

From The Lark, they are now passing out 500 double-packs of meals weekly, delivering through partners such as La Casa de la Raza, the county’s Behavioral Wellness program, Pilgrim Terrace senior community, and even to the night shift at Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria. She’d love to expand outreach deeper into Santa Barbara, Lompoc, and Carpinteria but said that funding is the primary limitation right now.

“I thrive on it,” said Balvidiez, who grew up in Santa Maria and was briefly the head of Fairview Gardens in Goleta. “It’s really fun to work with so many different people: nonprofit people, restaurant people, people at risk and in need in our community. We’re trying to build a safety net for any type of emergency that our community has. We know these emergencies are going to keep coming.”

Matchmaker Extraordinaire

With so many nonprofit and for-profit players wanting to help, there’s bound to be both redundancies and critical gaps in service. Tracking these efficiency issues is Julia Blanton of the Community Environmental Council, which broke into the county’s food distribution a couple years ago as part of the Santa Barbara County Food Action Network in order to cut down on food waste and improve the region’s overall resiliency in times of emergency.

Blanton, who graduated from Santa Barbara High, studied nutrition at Cal Poly, and previously worked for Cottage Hospital, is developing a database that’s matching food donors, recipients, and volunteers.

“It became clear that there was an unprecedented need for prepared meals throughout the county,” said Blanton of the needs that arose at the start of the pandemic. “In essence, I’m playing the matchmaker for long-term and short-term needs.” The emergency work is actually paving a better way into the future, said Blanton, explaining, “It’s just pushing my work forward, actually.”

She’s also been in contact with the Ventura County chapter of World Central Kitchen, which is the globally active nonprofit food service created by the famous Chef José Andrés of Washington, D.C. There’s hope the organization may soon start funding Santa Barbara County efforts to expand through the United Way and various family resource centers in Guadalupe, New Cuyama, and Lompoc, many of which also serve undocumented citizens.

Blanton is uniquely well qualified for the position she’s now in, and, like everyone else interviewed for this story, happy to be of service. “It’s exhilarating,” she said. “It’s so amazing to be able to help and be useful during this time. I’m happy to be working after hours and to know that those hours are truly making a difference.”

Museum of Art Keeps Minds Busy

In addition to food, New Beginnings is also helping clients by passing out art kits that have been donated by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

“People are used to being able to go places like the library to read and work on their computers ​— ​a lot of that’s gone,” said New Beginnings’ director Kristine Schwarz, who started passing out the 500 kits last week. “It’s been a big hit. For them to have a way to artistically and creatively express themselves during this time, there’s a real therapeutic value to that. There’s a lot of creative expression in this population, so it’s a really good match.”

Kits can also be downloaded for free via sbma.net/events/sbmaathome. Participants can email their finished works to communityprograms@sbma.net, which will then be posted on sbma.net/learn/flickrgallery.