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SANTA MARIA, Calif. — In March when COVID-19 cases began rapidly trending upward in California, food banks across the state experienced a surge in demand while civilian volunteers and staff were unavailable to package, load and deliver meals. California National Guardsmen stepped in to fill the gap to ensure meals were delivered to those in need.
At the request of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Cal Guard activated its resources to provide medical support, shelter and food and critical sustainment commodities in the first days of the crisis.
In the first week of the Cal Guard’s COVID-19 response, about 1,000 Cal Guardsmen provided manpower to more than a dozen food banks dispersed up and down the state.
“The need for food in Monterey County more than tripled,” said Lillian Martinez, a distributor and quality coordinator for the Food Bank for Monterey County in Salinas, California. “We needed manpower. We needed a lot of help packing bags with different staples for families.”
Food banks requested assistance through their local county officials who then contacted the California Office of Emergency Services (CAL OES), which tasked the Guardsmen to serve as manpower until civilian volunteers could return.
Martinez said the Food Bank for Monterey County serves lower-income families and the elderly. She explained that many in the county had lost income due to the crisis, causing the surge in demand for meals.
On March 24, Cal Guard Soldiers from Headquarters Support Company, 340th Brigade Support Battalion, were at the Salinas Valley Community Church to distribute meals they had packaged at the Food Bank for Monterey County warehouse. The Soldiers set up a system that allowed drivers to receive meals from their vehicles to minimize personal contact and the chance of exposure to the virus. A long line of cars weaved through the parking lot to the food distribution point.
First Lt. Irvin Uy was the officer-in-charge at the location. Uy works on the civilian side in the information technology department at the University of San Francisco, but had been told not to come to work due to the crisis.
“My unit called me and I said I’m ready to go,” Uy said.
Uy’s Soldiers directed cars to the distribution point where the drivers were handed bags of food through their car windows.
“We’re senior citizens and sometimes we depend on this,” said a driver from his car.
Spc. Joseph Santiago was one of the Soldiers handing out meals. He said he was getting in his truck at his home in Half Moon Bay for his commute to San Mateo where he works as an internet technician when he got the call to report to his unit. “I think a lot of people were nervous about what we’d be doing out here,” he said. “But seeing us do humanitarian work is good. I feel like we’re doing really good work here.”
“They’re awesome,” Martinez said about the Guardsmen. “They’re packaging between 3,000 and 4,000 bags of food a day.”
Further south in Santa Maria, the Food Bank of Santa Barbara County saw a similar tripling of demand for meals. Airmen from the Cal Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing were tasked to man the food bank’s warehouse and deliver food to the homes of the elderly who were sheltering in place and unable to pick up food themselves.
On March 27, Master Sgt. Joseph Magat and Senior Airman Jacob Rodriguez drove a food bank van door to door delivering bags of food to Santa Maria residences. Magat said he was happy to have the opportunity to help during this crisis. “We’re providing humanitarian relief,” he said. “We get to work with the public and actually help them.”
Staff Sgt. Andrew Tymczyszyn worked in the food bank warehouse loading pallets of food onto trucks. Tymczyszyn, who works for Northrup Grumman on the civilian side, said he has been activated nearly every year since 2011 for Modular Airborne FireFighting System (MAFS) missions during California’s fire season, and for the Oroville Dam crisis in 2017. “Being activated isn’t new to me,” he said. “It’s why I joined. I want to give back, and with the Guard I get to help the local community. My wife never likes it when I have to leave but she understands it comes with the territory.”
Staff Sgt. Viana Cuyan is a part-time CPR basic life support instructor, a substitute instructional aide for the severely handicapped, and is studying to be a nurse. She had been told not to come into work when she got the call from the 146th Airlift Wing to report for duty.
On March 27, Cuyan was working in the food bank warehouse as a team leader for civilian volunteers who were tasked to package meals. “This is my first time working in a warehouse,” she said. “The work is actually tiring, but I’m enjoying it because I feel that I’m helping people.”
Cuyan said her parents were worried about her but are proud that she is helping people who need it. “This is a life-changing experience, not only for me but for all of us,” Cuyan said. “I’m happy to be able to help in a time like this.”
Cal Guardsmen from the 115th Regional Support Group; 223rd Military Intelligence Battalion; 315th Engineers, Vertical Construction Company; 1040th Quartermaster Company; 146th Airlift Wing; 129th Rescue Wing; and the 195th Wing were activated for food bank operations up and down the state.
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