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Cal Guard reaches 50 million meals distributed during COVID-19

A California National Guardsman assigned to Joint Task Force 115 packs food into a box at the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services in Sacramento, California, May 2020. As of June 9, the California National Guard surpassed 50 million meals packed and distributed at food banks throughout the state since initial operations began in March as part of Cal Guard’s humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Eddie Siguenza)

A California National Guardsman assigned to Joint Task Force 115 packs food into a box at the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services in Sacramento, California, May 2020. As of June 9, the California National Guard surpassed 50 million meals packed and distributed at food banks throughout the state since initial operations began in March as part of Cal Guard’s humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Eddie Siguenza)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The California Military Department set another unprecedented milestone Tuesday as it surpassed 50 million meals packed and distributed as part of its ongoing statewide COVID-19 humanitarian support mission.

California National Guard and California State Guard service members began working food banks across the state in late March just as coronavirus restrictions initiated and the number of regular food bank volunteers dwindled due to personal safety precautions against the virus.

Roughly 70 days into the mission, Cal Guard hasn’t stopped its critical support to this viable community operation, even during a period of civil unrest.

“I don’t think we’re going to be slowing down either,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Ernest V. Serrato, operations sergeant major at 115th Regional Support Group which transformed into Joint Task Force 115 to execute the mission. The task force oversees food bank operations and tracks daily output numbers. “It’s a conjunction of the Soldiers and Airmen coming together to support their communities. They believe in what they’re doing. They believe in helping out whenever we’re called upon, whether its civil unrest or food bank operations. We’ll continue to work as hard as we can to make sure we can support everybody who we can.”

Cal Guard operated at more than 30 food banks in 20 counties across the state. As many as 700 Soldiers and Airmen have supported the mission, but numbers recently shortened as regular food bank volunteers begin to return and other community-based organizations step up to help.

“Reaching 50 million just shows how committed Cal Guard is to serving and assisting citizens and communities of this great state,” said 1st Sgt. Scott Flynn, 132nd Multi-Role Bridge Company non-commissioned officer in charge. Flynn oversees more than two dozen troops at Santa Cruz County Food Bank where U.S. Army-trained engineers adapted their skills to provide warehouse support and enhance Cal Guard’s mission.

“They absolutely know the importance of the mission. In these uncertain times, with many Californians out of work and experiencing hardships, we got to see first-hand, especially during distribution days, the value and effect food bank operations have in Santa Cruz county and California in general,” Flynn said.

“I will say that the California Guard has been undeniably very valuable,” said Lauren Reid, communications director with the California Association of Food Banks. “There hasn’t been a lot of volunteers because of COVID-19. The National Guard really stepped up and is doing a great job.”

The Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services became Cal Guard’s first operation in late March. It was there where efforts spurned outward, as other food banks requested the Guard’s assistance and where Cal Guard in focused its COVID-19 priorities.

“Our primary mission is to ramp up our operations to support the entire community and help all those affected by COVID-19,” said Blake Young, president and chief executive officer of the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services. “We requested from the National Guard troops to help us break down all the food that we have, package it and be able to get the food out to the distribution sites to feed … families of our county.”

Young added, “Because of COVID-19, we’ve had an increase in need. What we’re trying to do is build the capacity of the network and get them food as quickly as possible. The California National Guard helped us ramp up those operations so people that need food will be able to get it.”

The coronavirus pandemic put many community charities in difficult spots in March. Food bank volunteers stayed home with many adhering to the state’s stay-at-home policy. Yet the demand for food assistance didn’t stop.

“The need is there and that’s why they’re here. They are a lifesaver,” said Erika Carstensen, Redwood Empire Food Bank’s supply chain manager, in an interview with The Press Democrat. “I was struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And they show up and I can totally see the light.”

“I remind them, they’re feeding folks from five different counties,” said 2nd Lt. Ian Panlilio, commending his Soldiers at the Redwood Empire site in Northern California. “I couldn’t ask for a better platoon. Majority are immigrants or the first generation of their family to be born in America. We have a very diverse group, and I think it serves to only enhance our capabilities.”

“It just feels good knowing we made a significant societal impact with our team,” Panlilio added.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, in a press release March 20, announced the deployment of Cal Guard “to provide short-term food security to isolated and vulnerable Californians.”

Said Newsom, “Due to COVID-19, many food banks have been affected by a significant decline in volunteerism, impacting logistical and local infrastructure for food distribution. The California Guard will initially deploy personnel and logistical equipment to a food bank distribution warehouse in Sacramento County starting today, and will conduct immediate site assessments statewide for those counties that have requested short-term support and stabilization. This short-term assistance from the California National Guard allows time to mobilize AmeriCorps, California Conservation Corps and Local Conservation Corps members, and other volunteers where counties have identified serious gaps.”

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