Food from the Heart Continues Providing Healthy Meals During Pandemic

COVID Causes Loss of Social Component for Santa Barbara County Volunteers and Homebound, Ill Clients

Executive Director Steven Sharpe and Board Chair (and volunteer) Kelly Onnen

Food from the Heart (FFTH), a nonprofit providing free, nutritious food to about 160 homebound, ill people in Santa Barbara and Goleta, has continued preparing and delivering food every week throughout the pandemic. COVID, however, has required significant adaptations to ensure the safety of staff, volunteers, and clients, including the elimination of visiting time with clients.

COVID caused the normal contingent of 25-40 volunteers who prepare the food each week to be trimmed down to 12 to ensure social distancing. Many volunteers, who are seniors, chose to pause during the pandemic anyway. This decision, Board Chair Kelly Onnen related, greatly saddened these volunteers because they love the work and miss being part of the FFTH family. Other volunteers felt comfortable continuing through COVID, enabling FFTH’s services to run uninterrupted.

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At Trinity Lutheran Church, whose kitchen and fellowship hall FFTH uses at a greatly subsidized rate, masked and gloved volunteers prepare the food at individual tables spaced 10 feet apart. The pre-COVID ambiance, filled with chatter and laughs, has been replaced by a more solemn environment, with volunteers focused on the work. Onnen lamented that the volunteers no longer have the social aspect, but she and the volunteers are all very pleased that the work can continue with the new protocols. 

The menu each week includes soup, an entrée, a deli salad, a dessert, fruit, and bread. The food, which typically last three to four days, is nutritious, tasty, and visually appealing — all important attributes for ill clients, who need healing food and who sometimes have poor appetites. 

A separate group of volunteers, also masked and gloved, delivers the food. Pre-COVID, drivers typically entered the home, put away the food, and visited with the clients. Drivers have the same routes each week and develop rapports with their clients. Now, COVID requires that the food be dropped off at the door. The social interaction, Onnen related, has always been just as valued by the clients as the food and is a key part of what Food from the Heart is about. Safety, of course, is paramount, so the social aspect must take a pause.

Foreground: volunteers Laura Libbey and Loren Solin; background: volunteer Bonnie Cummings and Executive Chef Aaron Casale.

The fresh fruit comes from another group of masked volunteers who harvest from donors’ backyards and donors’ commercial orchards. While FFTH has donated surplus produce in the past to the Foodbank of S.B. County, in COVID times, the weekly donations have been off the charts. An increase in volunteers harvesting and in people and businesses allowing their fruit to be picked has enabled FFTH to deliver 2,000-2,500 pounds of fruit each week to the Foodbank. This week saw plums, nectarines, oranges, tangelos, and lemons harvested. 

FFTH also supplies Grace Lutheran Pantry twice a month.

Starting a couple of months ago, each week FFTH gets 15 boxes of assorted fruits and vegetables from the Berry Man as part of the USDA’s Foodbox Program. The 38-pound boxes have a dozen types of produce, most of which is sourced close to home.

Most of FFTH’s clients are referred by medical agencies, but clients can self-refer. As in non-COVID times, there is a short wait list.

Food from the Heart’s name, according to Onnen, reflects all the love that goes into each bag of food. In its 25 years, FFTH has never missed a week of food delivery. Onnen shared that she feels completely blessed to be part of the organization. Eighteen years after she started, Onnen is still working alongside volunteers who were there when she arrived. The “volunteers love what they do and get back as much as they give.”

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