A Jewish Family Service of San Diego staff member arranges freshly frozen meals.

The need for food banks has greatly increased since March in San Diego. Even smaller church food banks have seen the number of people double or triple. Most food banks are working overtime to meet that demand.

Jewish Family Service of San Diego is one the nonprofits that has increased its output and added a new program — Project 19 — to meet the extra need during the COVID-19 pandemic. This project is meant to serve seniors 65 and older all over San Diego who are homebound because of COVID by bringing them boxes of groceries or freshly frozen meals.

JFS has always offered a variety of food programs, including the free Corner Market and Foodmobile delivery service, but has had to readjust because of the pandemic. The Corner Market was closed as the Loonin Family Kitchen increased capacity from 400 to over 1,600 meals daily. There are now two shifts a day.

The kitchen followed Jewish dietary laws, but has transitioned to non-kosher to supply a higher volume of food. However, JFS can still procure pre-made kosher meals for clients who need them. The Foodmobile still delivers meals to vulnerable older adults and younger adults with disabilities.

There is also drive-thru food distribution at JFS headquarters in Kearny Mesa on weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. where anyone in need can receive a bag of groceries.

However, the biggest food program now is Project 19. Some of the JFS staff were redeployed from other positions to help out. The call went out for more volunteers, too. As Carole Yellen, senior director of strategic partnership, put it: “All hands are needed on deck now.”

Yellen oversees the volunteer program and community engagement. There are about 10 volunteers along with the JFS staff working in the food warehouse, helping with the drive-thru distribution and packing boxes of food. In addition, some 75 volunteer drivers are needed each week to deliver those boxes on 15 routes covering 39 zip codes. Homebound seniors receive either a box of groceries or a box of freshly frozen meals. Many people in the community are reaching out for help for the first time.

I signed up to be a volunteer driver. Different parts of the county are served each day, and I work on Tuesdays in East County. So far, I have delivered four times. Although I have lived in East County for almost 30 years, it has been interesting to discover new areas and streets that I had never been to before. It is also satisfying because the seniors who receive the food are so grateful. My clients have been white, African American, Latino, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern.

In fact, last week when I delivered to a Palestinian couple, there was a nice exchange. As I walked up to the front door wearing a mask, I yelled out, “Salaam Alaikum” in Arabic.  The elder gentleman who answered the door got excited and in a loud voice said, “Shalom Aleichem!” in Hebrew, adding, “I am from Ramallah, but my wife is from Jerusalem. Thank you to Jewish Family Service!”

Sometimes it is hard to find the clients’ homes as their address don’t always match the actual physical location of the building, but eventually the boxes get delivered and it feels good to know that you have helped others.

Project 19 is an ambitious effort that needs money and volunteers to meet the needs of former and new clients. At the beginning of the pandemic, JFS partnered with Team Rubicon, a nationally recognized disaster relief organization. This was very helpful, but temporary as it was only for a few months. JFS has also received help from the County of San Diego and the San Diego Food Bank. Donations are always welcome, as well as more people willing to volunteer their time if not their money.

On Sunday, Oct. 18, there will be a food drive held in conjunction with the annual Jewish high holy days.

“This is an annual JFS food drive with our Jewish community that typically brings in 30,000 pounds of food,” said Yellen. “Based on the exponential increase in food insecurity during COVID, we are asking our community to help exceed that annual goal.”

“Previously, congregants received a brown bag on Rosh Hashanah to return filled with food on Yom Kippur,” she said. “Since we expect many services will be virtual this year, we are offering the Jewish community a drop-off day. People can either drop off food at JFS or contact their synagogue to learn about those individual efforts.”

For more information, Jewish Family Service’s website is www.jfssd.org

Mimi Pollack is a former English as a Second Language teacher and a freelance writer.

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