When news of the coronavirus pandemic hit Lanare, a small unincorporated town in Fresno County, despair gripped residents — mostly farmworkers. They had received no information on social distancing or hand washing. They had heard through the rumor mills that people should stay home, away from everything.

But they had no food and no money because it had been raining heavily when the pandemic hit, and farmworkers could not work.

“It was a mess,” said Leslie Martinez, policy advocate for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in Fresno. “[They] were already stressed.”

Leslie Martinez, policy advocate for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, photographed outside her office in downtown Fresno on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Tara Lynn Gray, chief executive officer of the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce, had worked for FEMA in national emergency preparedness and knew what was coming.

“It was going to be devastating — for people of color in general,” she said. “We are at the bottom of every system.”

Most of the people interviewed for this story said that. As fear gripped communities throughout the central San Joaquin Valley — largely in minority neighborhoods of African Americans, farmworker communities, refugees, elderly, undocumented, working class, disabled — it became clear that these groups were not positioned to withstand the additional hardships which would unfold and would bear the brunt of the devastation. The pandemic exacted its heaviest toll on the traditionally vulnerable communities, exposing already existing gaps of inequality.

“The pandemic just laid bare all the inequities and racism that existed and put it on steroids, times 10,” Martinez said. “These problems have long existed.”

The hunger situation

The fallout from the crisis only intensified the existing food insecurity issue, making it even tougher for families to afford healthy and nutritious meals.

Community members in west Fresno wait for a food distribution to start at Feed My Sheep Ministries where groups and individuals are separated by six feet due to coronavirus protocols on Friday, June 5, 2020. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

“People were hungry before; now they are really hungry,“ Martinez said. “If the pandemic did anything, it was to elevate these problems to levels where they have never been before.”

The most visible pandemic-related problem in the central San Joaquin Valley was the increased demand for food and basic supplies. Natalie Caples, co-CEO of the Central California Food Bank, said hunger has always been an issue here. Pre-COVID-19, one in four people and one in three children “struggled with hunger;” the Central California Food bank delivered food to approximately 280,000 people each month.

Natalie Caples, co-CEO of the Central California Food Bank, looks over fresh produce packed in the food bank’s warehouse in Fresno on Monday, June 8, 2020. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

The pandemic “magnified the gaps” and exacerbated an already difficult issue. A comparison of April 2020 and April 2019 reveals that food distribution in the agency’s five-county service area jumped 43 percent — 38-39 percent in Fresno; 150 percent in Madera; 45 percent in Tulare; 2 percent in Kings, and 59 percent in Kern. More than 7.6 million pounds of food has been distributed since March 1. Twenty-five percent of recipients were new, Caples said.

To curb the rising food insecurity among children age 12 and under, the food bank partnered with the Fresno Unified School District to distribute at school sites and is collaborating with rural schools to ensure that the families’ food needs are met in the summer.

The number of people filing applications for food-related assistance shows a greater need. Joshua Hernandez, program manager with the Fresno County Department of Social Services, said applications for CalFresh, a federally funded program which helps low-income people acquire healthy and nutritious food, surged, compared to 2019 numbers — 24.6 percent in March (from 6,008 to 7,487) and 85.1 percent in April (from 6,395 to 11,838); May numbers are incomplete.

The food angels

The dire need for food that spiked right after the shelter in place order was met with a large coalition of government and non-governmental agencies with a primary purpose of ensuring that food got to people who needed it.

Artie Padilla, executive director of Every Neighborhood Partnership, who has a long history of working in underserved communities, started a conversation with about seven people — on how to mitigate the food problem.

Artie Padilla, executive director of Every Neighborhood Partnership, holds up a box of fruit during a food distribution at Cooper Academy Middle School in Fresno on Friday, June 11, 2020. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Padilla said the group first used already existing systems for distribution, but the demand was overwhelming, and lines were two or three times longer. So the group reviewed the gaps and who was being left out; they added more sites, increased the frequency and created a food locator. They facilitated the availability of hot meals where possible and expanded the content of each box to include toiletries and other supplies.

The group has grown to more than 40 members, including representatives of Fresno Unified, Central California Food Bank, Fresno Metro Ministry, various churches, Bitwise Industries and lots of agencies and volunteers.

Anthony “AP” Armour, executive director of Neighborhood Industries, got involved right after he heard that the shelter in place order was imminent. His friend, Jake Soberal, co-founder and CEO of Bitwise Industries, created Take Care, an all-in-one digital platform to provide grocery relief in Fresno, Tulare, and Madera counties to those most at-risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anthony “AP” Armour, executive director of Neighborhood Industries, stands in the warehouse area at Neighborhood Thrift in the Tower District on Thursday, June 11, 2020. In a partnership with Bitwise Neighborhood Industries began providing grocery and everyday items delivery services for people in need during the COVID-19 crisis. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Pre-COVID-19, he ran an organization that was already “designed to serve.” Armour said, “We already had the muscle, the infrastructure, the production team.”

The shutdown threatened to decimate the businesses he meticulously built and leave his 40 employees without work or a means of income.

“We work with some of the most financially vulnerable people in the city,” Armour said. Getting into food distribution “was a way to keep the people [his employees] and their paychecks.”

So he and his team set out to get food to the “elderly, immune compromised, people in rural communities, people with five kids and can’t get out, people with no transportation.” The need for food was enormous. On the first day that the Take Care food delivery was launched, 2,000 people were already signed up.

His team provided the mobile delivery, especially to those who could not go to the food distribution points. Recipients only needed to sign up; no questions asked, no IDs required.

At the West Fresno Family Resource Center, Yolanda Randles, executive director, handed out more than 150 packages, drive-by style, at the Maxine Parks Community Center on May 22.

Yolanda Randles, executive director of West Fresno Family Resource Center, takes a look at the resource center garden outside the west Fresno office on Friday, June 5, 2020. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

At one point, the line of cars snaked around blocks with no end in sight. Since the pandemic started, the center has distributed food every Thursday at its Mary Ella Brown Community Center, once every other week at the Maxine Parks Community Center, and exclusively to the elderly, twice a month.

Hester Henley, 74, said the food she receives from the West Fresno Family Resource Center has made all the difference for her and others in her neighborhood.

“We do not have a lot of the things they have in other parts of Fresno,” she said, things like grocery stores or megastores like Costco and Sam’s Club. Her age and limited mobility are also big factors.

“We don’t get food stamps,” Henley said. “It [food distribution] is a big help to the seniors.”

Christine Barker, executive director of Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, said food distribution is not part of the services her organization provides to the thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia, East Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The decision to distribute food came out of a necessity to protect clients — seniors with health conditions that made them vulnerable and Asian clients who were being verbally harassed and accused of causing the coronavirus.

“They were afraid to leave their homes,” Barker said. “We did not want to compromise them.”

Pandemic exaggerated problems

Everyone, especially the ones in the forefront of providing food to the hungry during this crisis, say that any permanent solution must start with a deep understanding beyond the food insecurity itself.

It must address factors such as joblessness, poor housing and homelessness, inadequate representation, racism, anti-immigrants’ rules, lack of access and the denial of the legitimacy of some communities.

Padilla of Every Neighborhood Partnership said, only then can “we shift the trajectory.”


Unemployment and underemployment are always pivotal in instability in vulnerable communities. A reported 40 million Americans have lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

California’s unemployment rate jumped 10 percent to 15.5 percent from March to April, disproportionately impacting women, the young, the less educated, Asians and Blacks. A study by California Policy Lab found that “a staggering one in four black workers and one in four Asian workers have filed for unemployment benefits” since the COVID-19 crisis began.

In Fresno County, the unemployment rate was 16.7 percent in April. The hardest hit sectors of the economy “are primarily low-wage, which disproportionately impacts young workers and people of color,” according to a May 22 story in The Bee.


Betzabel Estudillo, senior advocate with the California Food Policy Advocates said many food access issues immigrants face result from government policies. For instance, CalFresh, the state’s largest anti-hunger program, excludes certain immigrants because of their immigration status.

“Immigration status should not be a barrier to getting food assistance,” Estudillo stated. “Many immigrants are on the frontlines as grocery workers, janitors, truck drivers, and port workers helping us put food on our tables, and they deserve the same ability.”

Another impediment to immigrants’ access to food is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) new public charge rule which took effect on Feb. 24.

This rule sets a stricter standard for anyone applying for a green card or a visa to enter the U.S., and immigration officials may now consider receipt of certain public programs such as federal CalFresh, Medi-Cal, and housing assistance as a negative factor.

Both Martinez and Christine Barker say they witnessed great fear among the immigrant populations they serve.

“The undocumented were left out completely in conversations,” Barker said. “Many were skeptical and afraid” of even local organizations like the United Farm Workers.

“They did not trust that they [UFW] would keep their information safe and not report to ICE,” Barker said.

Food deserts

One of the concerns of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability is access to healthy foods in poor communities.

Martinez said the rural communities have no grocery stores and lack healthy food options. That, coupled with low wages, dooms them to unhealthy choices.

“It is ironic that these people who pick the food we eat and serve in restaurants have no access to produce,” Martinez said.

With restaurants closed, vegetable farmers had fewer markets for their produce and let acres of crops rot in the fields, in close proximity to people who desperately needed them.

For low-income neighborhoods on the west side and southeast Fresno, grocery stores and supermarkets are often out of reach. Residents without their own cars depend on limited public transportation to get to stores in other neighborhoods.

Tony Pilotti of Fresno picks up a box of mangos from a food distribution at Feed My Sheep Ministries in west Fresno on Friday, June 5, 2020. Coronavirus protocols kept groups and individuals separated and using masks to reduce the chances of contracting the disease. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Martinez and Randles of the West Fresno Family Resource Center said Families are then forced to rely on corner stores and fast food restaurants, where food may be affordable but not very healthy.

“It is all rooted in racism and redlining,” Martinez said.

Government’s ‘blissful ignorance’

A factor that impedes access for people in rural communities is government inaction or lack of representation. Martinez said that the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, the body that governs the communities of Lanare, Tombstone Territory and Cantua Creek, did nothing to help residents.

“We [Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability office] made the fliers,” Martinez said. “They are Fresno County people, yet, they did not know how to get food” during the crisis, nor did they receive any information on health and safety issues about social distancing or other precautions.

Dave Pomaville, director of public health in Fresno County, said that while there were some communication problems, the public health department devoted a lot of time and resources to residents in the rural communities through various partners, including the schools, churches and health clinics.

Strengthening vulnerable communities

No one has a magic bullet to fix all that is wrong. Still, everyone agrees there’s a need for solutions that outlasts the pandemic and empowers these communities in meaningful ways.

“We will see displacements and hard times,” Gray said. But also hope — that the coalitions built during this crisis will continue to work to strengthen vulnerable communities.

Henley remembers the west Fresno of her youth. “We used to be a thriving community with supermarkets, gas stations, our own doctors’ offices and everything we needed,” she said. “If we can get those things back, we’ll be fine.”

She describes community resources like the West Fresno Family Resource Center as a lifeline, offering food to the hungry, farmers markets for fresh produce, health screenings and dance classes. “We almost forget the things we don’t have.”

Randles who describes herself as a believer in change said, “We must all work to reduce the disparities.” She advocates a “grounds up” approach and early intervention in the lives of at-risk youth in vulnerable communities, starting when their mothers are still pregnant.

“True change,” Martinez said, must include climate and economic justice and a post-COVID-19 era where “normal isn’t good enough” and a “power that some people have not tapped.”

Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the editor for the Fresnoland Lab, a reporting and engagement lab dedicated to covering land use, housing, water and development in the central San Joaquin Valley.

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