As California’s shelter-in-place order nears its second month, university and volunteer-led groups are working to support Isla Vista’s most vulnerable populations with consistent and safe access to food during this time of crisis.   

The I.V. Food Co-op is one of a handful of grocery stores in I.V. and has been relied on by many, especially now that access to larger grocery stores outside of I.V. may be a hurdle for community members in isolation. Nexus file photo

Local food-based services, such as Food Not Bombs, the I.V. Food Co-op, the Associated Students (A.S.) Food Bank and Manos de Mapaches, are contributing to the flurry of local support that has come out of the coronavirus pandemic with new and improved services, such as daily meal distributions and grocery pick-up programs. 

Food Not Bombs, a long-standing organization in I.V., has grown to meet the community’s demand for food access. The organization usually produces two meals per week but now produces five, which volunteers hand out in various parks in I.V. for those facing food insecurity, according to its Facebook page

Under normal circumstances, Food Not Bombs serves free vegan meals twice a week, in which most of its food comes free from local growers and markets, such as the Goleta Farmers Market and the I.V. Food Co-op, according to Jonathan Dickstein, a religious studies graduate student who has been volunteering at Food Not Bombs for over a year.

A large part of Food Not Bombs’ normal operations involves group cooking, but volunteers have now shifted operations to cooking separately while in isolation, according to its Facebook page.

Food Not Bombs recently partnered with I.V. Food Co-op on April 28, purchasing the store’s packaged sandwiches, fruits, snacks and drinks to be distributed by Food Not Bombs’ volunteers at a lower cost, according to Melissa Cohen, the store’s general manager. In distributing food to community members, Dickstein said Food Not Bombs operates under the framework that “food is a right, not a privilege.”  

The I.V. Food Co-op is one of a handful of grocery stores in I.V. and has been relied on by many, especially now that access to larger grocery stores outside of I.V. may be a hurdle for community members in isolation, according to Cohen.

The I.V. Food Co-op has made efforts to ensure that customers who are practicing social distancing have access to groceries, such as making its inventory accessible through an online platform known as Co-op Curbside. Customers can purchase their groceries online and have them bagged and brought to the curb for pickup at a time of their choosing. 

The new program also provides services to those who are homebound and unable to pick up groceries at the store. Through contacting the I.V. Food Co-op, customers from  high-risk demographics can arrange a home delivery to minimize contact. 

“There aren’t formulas for this; these are people developing all of these programs in [real] time. It is all very people-powered,” Cohen said.

However, the I.V. Food Co-op has not been immune to the new pressures that the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing orders place on grocery stores and other essential services, Cohen said.  

“I have run the Co-op for 10 years, through shootings and riots and wildfires, and this has been as hard as everything combined together,” she added. 

Aside from Food Not Bombs and the I.V. Food Co-op, other local programs have stepped up to the challenge of combating food insecurity during this time. 

Manos de Mapaches, an organization based in I.V. that was created on April 15 by UC Santa Barbara students, is also delivering groceries and supplies to those most vulnerable in the community. 

The group is working to address the needs of the elderly, disabled and immunocompromised by pairing each community member with a volunteer who will coordinate the grocery delivery. Volunteers are typically tasked solely with the pickup and delivery of groceries that have been paid for in advance by the person ordering the service, according to Alec Valdez, a fourth-year history of public policy and law major and the founder of Manos de Mapaches. 

But the program, still in its infancy, has remained flexible in order to adapt to different needs, according to Valdez. Volunteers are encouraged to coordinate with the person in need of service to find the most accessible system for ordering groceries, depending on the circumstances. Anyone under the age of 40 who is in good health and meets other criteria including practicing social distancing  can volunteer with Manos de Mapaches, according to its website.

The group is also developing a project called “Community Connections,” a social exchange program in which volunteers are digitally connected to people from high-risk demographics — such as the elderly —  to relieve the loneliness that has accompanied the shelter-in-place orders, according to Valdez.

Manos de Mapaches is an effort that stemmed from the Community Affairs Board (C.A.B.) at UCSB, according to Valdez, who is also the co-coordinator of C.A.B. Alternative Breaks. Because Alternative Breaks’ planned volunteer operations for the quarter had been canceled, Valdez said he created Manos de Mapaches to help serve others in this new reality. 

The idea for Manos de Mapaches was inspired by a group of volunteers in New York called Invisible Hands, Valdez said. Like Manos de Mapaches, Invisible Hands also provides grocery shopping and deliveries for those who are most at risk. 

In a similar light, the A.S. Food Bank has teamed up with the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County and recently shifted its services to the distribution of brown bags, containing items such as pasta, beans and sauces, according to its Facebook page.

The A.S. Food Bank now distributes these groceries outside the front of its location at the University Center on Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The A.S. Food Bank is also giving out meal tickets through an online application process, which can be used for pick-up meals at the Portola Dining Commons.

While there is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has put a strain on the community, Cohen maintains that the importance of food — now more than ever — is integral in keeping spirits high. 

“More than food, these meals foster a moment of connection and seeing and being seen, and a reminder that everyone matters,” she said.