Todd Walters, president of UFCW Local 135, which provided 11 volunteers, directs traffic at the food giveaway at SDCCU Stadium. Photo by Chris Stone

The advertised start for Saturday’s free food distribution at SDCCU Stadium was 9 a.m. But the demand was so great that hundreds of cars arriving after that time were turned away.

The 1,000-vehicle limit was reached even before 9 a.m., organizers said.

Cars were backed up on Interstate 5 and Friars Road as people headed to stadium for free food for low-income residents and seniors. The line circled around the Mission Valley venue.

Sponsored by the Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank and the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, the drive-thru event was the first of four large food giveaways planned in the next several weeks.

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On Friday, April 3, a second large distribution will be at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. The following weekend, it will in the South Bay, with the location to be determined, and a fourth will be the weekend of April 18 at Grossmont Center in La Mesa.

“I can’t say enough about the spirit of generosity that is on display,” said San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who greeted some participants and briefly helped put bags of food in the backs of cars.

“This represents the best of our city and the reality of where we are right now, this economic situation,” he said of the COVID-19 crisis. “This is about San Diegans stepping up and helping other San Diegans. We’re going to get through this by exactly what we are seeing here today, San Diegans helping each other, doing the right thing, doing that social distancing.”

Faulconer added: “That’s how we get through this as quickly as possible.”

The Food Bank feeds about 350,000 people monthly through 200 distribution sites in the county, said James Floros, president and CEO of the nonprofit.

Residents can find sites for food assistance by visiting sandiegofoodbank.org.

On Saturday, 25-pound bags of groceries were handed out — including whole grain spaghetti, peanut butter, brown rice, raisins, a box of cereal and canned pears, peaches, green beans, green peas, tomato sauce, vegetable soup, chili and salmon.

Fresh apples, oranges, grapes and strawberries also were loaded into cars.

Drivers followed the queue around the stadium, and moved into an area where they were asked to keep their windows rolled up for volunteer safety. Drivers popped or remotely unlatched their trunks and food was placed in them as they passed four or five stations.

Then a volunteer closed the trunk, all without people exiting their cars.

More than 100 volunteers, including Food Bank staff and labor union members, directed traffic and put food in people’s cars.

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the Food Bank has experienced an exponential increase in demand for food assistance, officials said.

Food distributions from the bank are possible through a combination of government programs and partnerships with over 500 San Diego nonprofit charities.

Eligibility for free food is based on household size and monthly and annual income. A single person must not exceed $2,445 monthly and $29,351 yearly. A family of two must earn less than $39,739; three persons, $50,125; four persons, $60,512, etc.

The distribution at the stadium was a “self-certifying” food distribution. Families didn’t need to show proof of income or provide I.D. to receive food assistance.

Families verbally verified they fell below the income guidelines, and a volunteer signed on behalf of each family. No walk-ups were allowed.

The Labor Council said their member unions — including hotel workers, janitors, stagehands and other retail and tourism workers — have seen layoffs or workers sent home without pay.

The Labor Council takes in unions representing tens of thousands of nurses, teachers, firefighters, service workers and construction tradespeople along with health-care and hotel workers, janitors and grocery employees.

“The need is going to contribute to grow,” Faulconer said.

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