On March 13, when the shelter-at-home order went into effect, everybody’s daily life changed drastically. But for the employees of San Luis Obispo County, that day also marked the start of a journey most of them had never done before: to respond in times of need as disaster service workers. As set forth in the California Constitution and signed by all San Luis Obispo County employees, the Disaster Service Worker Oath declared them to be called into service during emergencies.
As the COVID-19 health crisis unfolded, librarians, office clerks and public inspectors alike quickly found themselves handling medical supplies, delivering prescriptions, taking care of the homeless population, or – in our case – distributing food to our vulnerable population. It’s exactly this service to our community that made many of them aware of what it truly means to take care of each other. We spoke with Charlie and Matt, two of the individuals that were redirected to support the SLO Food Bank’s efforts of feeding our neighbors, about their experience.
Thank you both so much for serving our community and in particular for supporting us in our mission to feed hungry people in need. Could you explain a little what you do in your regular job?
Charlie: “I work in teen and adult services at the Atascadero Library where I manage programs, reshelf books and help with customer requests. Usually I interact with a lot of strangers that I do not personally know, but while working at the SLO Food Bank I started to enjoy interacting and forming relationships with the same people.”
Matt: “I work in the County’s Planning and Building Department where I handle the grant management for federal, state and local matters for various non-profits. I actually have worked on some funding for the SLO Food Bank in the past, so now it’s great to see your operations up close.”
It’s wonderful to see how the two of you and other SLO County workers are becoming part of our team! How did you find yourself supporting the SLO Food Bank? And when did you start working in our warehouse?
Matt: “The first two-and-a-half weeks I worked remotely from home doing my regular job, but then human resources reached out to me. The SLO Food Bank was looking for individuals that were comfortable with handling big trucks, forklifts and pallet jacks. I said yes and was immediately assigned to your warehouse. It has been nice to have a little change. While I was already helping people with my regular job, it is mentally very challenging. I enjoy the physical challenge the SLO Food Bank provides.”
Charlie: “I stayed home during the first week, but then I was asked if I wanted to volunteer at the homeless shelter. Initially, I was worried about my family’s health, but I soon realized how important it was to do my job and help others. I started at ECHO in Atascadero, then changed to 40 Prado in San Luis Obispo before slowly moving over to help out at the SLO Food Bank.”
Well, we are glad that your emergency response has brought you to us! What have you been doing at the SLO Food Bank and what tasks did you enjoy the most?
Matt: “Honestly, I enjoyed everything I did. Initially, I bagged a lot of food, but then I wanted to understand how your system works, so I started asking questions and looked around to see where else help was needed. Over time, I figured out how to stay busy by bringing more produce in, sorting recyclable items or getting out into the field delivering food for the County distributions as well as moving shelf-stable USDA items from the temporary warehouse at Camp SLO to your warehouse on Kendall Road. Soon after that, I spent half of my day driving around SLO County, and the other half in the warehouse. I think you can say that I enjoyed organizing the most – cleaning up using the forklift, moving food around as well as up and down the racks, sorting the trash, so just the physical activity of making things more neat and organized and then being able to see the improvement. Of course, overall, I am happy I can help people in need and make an impact, not just by giving money to non-profits with my regular job, but now by also handing food to people who need it.”
Charlie: “Most of the time, I work in the warehouse where I also help with the hourly, deep cleanings. When I first started, I also bagged a lot of food, mainly produce, but then I was assigned to other projects that got me really excited, like building orders for the County or handling shelf-stable USDA items. I attended a public distribution once. It was very interesting and touching to have people thank me for my help, but I enjoy coming to the warehouse the most because that’s where I found my rhythm and my routine, something I originally lost during COVID-19. I find a lot of comfort in going to work and knowing what I will be doing. Checking things off my to-do list is what I look forward to when I come to work. Those are my accomplishments for the day and it helps me visualize how I help our community.”
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and impressions with us who are so unique and inspiring. Did you know anything about the SLO Food Bank before working here and what is your biggest take-away?
Charlie: “I always knew we had a food bank in SLO County, but I had no idea where the physical building was located. Now I know that it’s only five minutes from my home! I would often donate to the SLO Food Bank when shopping at Vons, but I have never had any other interactions with your operations. The pandemic has not only made me more aware of the important work you do but has also connected me with other County workers like Matt that I probably would have never met otherwise. What I’m taking away from my time here is the wonderful teamwork, really. I love how you operate, how you welcomed us, made us comfortable and gave us meaningful work to do. The team listens to my ideas and I am not at all afraid to ask questions. It’s so motivating and encourages me to work harder. The SLO Food Bank team is awesome, and I feel like I belong to it.”
Matt: “As I mentioned before, thanks to my regular job I had already been coordinating with a lot of non-profits, so I had a general idea of what the SLO Food Bank does, but now I know more of the specifics. I found it very interesting to learn that the SLO Food Bank is one of the few food banks around the country that distributes fresh produce. It makes such a huge difference in the nutrition of our community, especially since a big part of it is harvested from our local farms and backyards. Also, the quality of the other food items that are handed out is very impressive. That core value of making sure our community receives healthy food is pretty cool. What I also take away is how the SLO Food Bank operates financially, and that 85% of your funding comes from local donations. That in itself says a lot about our SLO County community. A lot of other non-profits I work with heavily rely on federal and state subsidies. I also like the friendly atmosphere you create at your food distributions and that you trust people when they show up looking for help by respecting their privacy and not asking them to disclose any personal matters. I also find your volunteers pretty incredible because they give their time so generously without getting paid. I met a lot of inspiring people during my time here – from Cal Poly students, to Mormons on their mission, to retirees, and so many other groups.”
Wow, your compliments mean the world to us, thank you! We have also been so fortunate to have received the support of so many caring individuals from the County. It was a win-win for all of us! Is there anything else you want to add?
Matt: “I want to echo what Charlie said about making connections. I enjoyed working with other County workers, but also with your team. It’s cool to meet other people doing great things. I like helping people and that’s what we all have in common. It was also nice to step away from my regular work for a while and gain a different perspective. I will take this back with me when I continue what I usually do.”
Charlie: “Yes, it was nice having a change and getting to do something different from what I normally do. I also have been thinking that you should bring your event flyers to the library! Our libraries have public event spaces, and we often have programs where people talk and present their services. The SLO Food Bank could certainly do that, too.”
– By Luise Gleason, Marketing & Communications Coordinator