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Foodbank of Santa Barbara County implements new disaster preparedness plan

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Santa Barbara County’s twin disasters — the Thomas fire in December and the 1/9 Debris Flow it spawned —prompted the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County to launch a new disaster preparedness plan.

The Foodbank began implementing the new plan Friday with an all-staff training at the South County warehouse on Hollister Avenue, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit organization said.

During the Thomas fire and following the 1/9 Debris Flow, the Foodbank stepped outside its normal role as a “wholesale” provider of food to nonprofit partners by distributing groceries and fresh produce directly to local community members, the spokeswoman said.

Within two days of the fire reaching Santa Barbara County, the Foodbank established emergency food access sites in each of the high-need neighborhoods on Santa Barbara’s east side, west side and downtown, Goleta, Isla Vista and Carpinteria.

At the Friday training session, the results from an internal staff survey about the recent emergency response efficacies and obstacles were discussed.

Foodbank staff and board members also ran through various disaster response scenarios to develop operating procedures aimed at ensuring all county residents have access to healthy nutrition in any such future events.

County Office of Emergency Management Director Robert Lewin and OEM Community Recovery and Engagement coordinator Ben Romo participated to facilitate optimal collaboration with county operations.

Santa Barbara Fire Department personnel also provided warehouse fire response education.

“The process of setting up emergency distribution sites, establishing new partnerships on a moment’s notice and staffing lunch sites for kids when their schools were closed, along with placing and training waves of new volunteers taught us a lot in a short span of time,” said Erik Talkin, chief executive officer for the Foodbank.

“At this week’s training, and throughout the implementation, we’ll build on our successes and improve in areas we discovered were challenging during the last two disasters,” he said.

“Our (chief financial officer) ran distributions in Carpinteria when our partners south of the freeway closure couldn’t operate normally,” Talkin noted.

So the Foodbank will develop recruitment and training materials and processes to prepare a team of “super-volunteers” to run food distribution programs in the event of emergencies, Talkin said.

That will ensure Foodbank staff members can continue their normal work and provide other community support, he said.

New programmatic initiatives also are being created to provide nutrition education and skills training that will make the community more resilient and beter able to maintain healthy eating even with limited food choices during a disaster.

Talkin said fundraising is underway to update the Foodbank’s aging fleet of trucks and to expand South County warehouse capacity to ensure plenty of food is available if regular delivery avenues are disrupted, as happened when Highway 101 was shut down by the 1/9 Debris Flow.

“We turned over the entire contents of our South County warehouse twice in one week following the fire,” said Paul Wilkins, director of operations.

“While we normally serve zero people directly and distribute 7,000 pounds of food per day, in the week of Dec. 10 we averaged 1,000 people served directly per day and distributed 95,000 total pounds of food, or an average of 19,000 pounds per day.”

Other upcoming components of the Foodbank’s preparedness plan will include a conference for its 300 partner organizations Sept. 12 at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

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