During Thanksgiving week, the campus of East Palo Alto nonprofit Ecumenical Hunger Program was bustling as staffers and volunteers worked together to load meal kits into the vehicles and arms of underserved households. In under an hour the morning of Nov. 22, the workers made a significant dent in distributing what had been an impressively tall box of frozen turkeys, alongside equally tall towers of fresh produce and dried goods.
That morning, people came to the distribution by car, bike and foot at prescheduled time slots for Thanksgiving meals they might not have otherwise been able to enjoy.
The nonprofit distributes food, household items and clothing to more than 10,000 people in need each year, according to the program website.
It is also one of the beneficiaries of The Almanac's Holiday Fund. Because The Almanac and its partner the Silicon Valley Community Foundation cover all the administrative costs, every dollar raised goes directly to this year's 10 nonprofit organizations. Donations to the Holiday Fund can be made at almanacnews.com/holiday_fund.
The Ecumenical Hunger Program (EHP) has been serving the community since it was founded in 1975 and incorporated as a nonprofit in 1978, but in recent years it has changed its slogan to "Neighbors helping neighbors: Food, clothing & so much more!"
As people picked up their Thanksgiving meal kits, Lesia Preston, executive director of EHP, talked to The Almanac about what the nonprofit has been through since the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
"So much more" was added because the program really does much more than feed people – and its mission has taken on additional elements as local families burdened by the pandemic continue to struggle to make ends meet, Preston said.
In addition to food distribution, EHP will deliver free furniture, and offers clothing and household items from a warehouse at EHP's facility at 2411 Pulgas Ave. in East Palo Alto. That warehouse contains everything from bins of baby and children's clothes organized by size to extra furniture to bags of toys to be distributed in the upcoming holiday toy drive, opposite an extensive food pantry.
EHP's campus also has an organic garden that provides fresh produce to clients and teaches children about gardening basics. Before the pandemic, EHP also offered a women's support group and children's services, provided classes on financial literacy and healthy living on the campus, Preston said.
During the pandemic, EHP saw the needs of those it serves increase significantly, Preston said.
Those needs extended beyond food insecurity to concerns about how to pay for utilities and rent, to mental health concerns as the long-term stresses of COVID-19, employment and financial instability continued to weigh on families.
"Our numbers for food doubled," Preston said. Earlier in the pandemic, lines of cars would stretch for blocks, and EHP staff had to control traffic as well as distribute food, she said. The food comes primarily from Second Harvest Food Bank, with supplemental donations from churches and other food drives. Additional Thanksgiving and Christmas food donations also came from Facebook, according to Preston.
With a growing number of people who needed financial help to pay rent or utilities, the organization rallied to provide financial support and referrals to other service providers, she said. During this time, some households relocated from East Palo Alto to the Central Valley area but continued to work on the Peninsula and seek services from EHP, Preston added. Some individuals EHP serves can't afford to commute back and forth and sleep in their cars on the Peninsula, she said.
"It never lessens, our number of people that we're serving in this community. When one moves out, someone else is always going to move in," she said.
EHP also saw an increase in requests for large home appliances such as refrigerators, washers and dryers, so the organization began collecting appliance donations, she said. It also helped students meet their back-to-school needs, offering laptops, tablets and student desks to accommodate distance learning, and provided help with internet services and college tuition, she said.
Another significant issue EHP faced during the pandemic was its safety plan for reducing the risk of COVID-19 required halting volunteer activities and relying solely on its core team of about 20 staff members to deliver all of its services. That was a challenge because normally volunteer work is a critical part of operations at EHP, Preston said.
"The pandemic was one thing, but then doing all of the things that we do without the help of volunteers – oh, my, that was a thing in itself," she said.
Staff members remained dedicated to feeding and supporting the community, braving inclement weather and shouldering additional work. In response, Preston said that EHP has stepped up its efforts to boost staff morale by treating employees to lunch or giving them other recognition, as a way to "let them know that you were on the front lines (of the pandemic) and that we care about you," she said.
While EHP has been avoiding hosting events on its campus, it has been investing in physical upgrades, installing artificial turf and a large canopy to better accommodate visitors in the future, Preston added.
As EHP gears up for Christmas, its biggest distribution event of the year, the organization is asking for gift card donations to streamline the distribution process. While it's also accepting toy donations, those often take longer to distribute to families because staffers and volunteers must match the gifts to the gender and age-related preferences of each child, which can slow down the process, she said.
Gift cards are also helpful to families who need to buy gas, and those who need prescription eyeglasses, from places like Costco, Walmart or Target. They're also asking for warm blankets and ready-cooked packaged meals to support those who are unhoused, she added. Access the full wish list at is.gd/ehpholidaylist.
Last year, EHP served about 800 families for Thanksgiving and 1,300 for Christmas, according to LaKesha Roberts, associate director at EHP.
People who don't have much money still want to celebrate the holidays, Preston said. "Especially with all that has been going on in the world, we have tried our best this year," she said. "We're trying to give ... them an extra treat, things that can help them, staples that will help them, and as many gift cards as possible along with it."
EHP offers distribution hours on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to noon and 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Go to ehpcares.org for more information.