MARTINEZ — The COVID-19 pandemic nearly ruined Heather Gourley’s life.
Aside from catching the virus, both Gourley and her husband lost their jobs as a Starbucks supervisor and iron worker, respectively, costing them their home and nearly their family vehicle as well.
With nowhere else to turn, Gourley — a mother of three who was pregnant at the time — began taking her family to Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa, a nonprofit organization that provides meals and other services to families in need in central and eastern Contra Costa County.
The organization helped Gourley more than she could have imagined. Gourley found not just hot meals and nutrition, but a new career. Flash forward three years, she now works at Kidz Planet preparing food for preschoolers, after passing a rigorous culinary arts course offered by Loaves and Fishes.
“I don’t know what we would have done without them,” Gourley said, crediting her instructor, Cassandra Dell’Aquilla, with helping her apply and prepare for the whole process. “She sat down with me, and we put together a culinary resume. They helped me every step of the way.”
Gourley and her family weren’t alone. Loaves and Fishes was serving roughly 600 meals to people daily before the COVID-19 pandemic. That number has since quadrupled — and appears to be going up. From June 2022 to July 2023, the organization served 388,996 meals, a 38% increase from the prior fiscal year.
“People have to make choices, you know? It’s, ‘Do I buy medicine this month, or do I get a meal? Do I buy clothes for my kids or do I get a meal?’” said Janette Kennedy, the organization’s executive director of development and external relations. “With inflation and the rising cost of living, it’s very hard for people out there.”
Loaves and Fishes hopes to raise $7,500 through the East Bay Times’ Share the Spirit program, which provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The money will be used to serve 2,000 special holiday meals and offer small grocery gift cards to 350 people to buy food or other essentials.
The problem of food insecurity — the lack of consistent access to food — affects roughly 1 in 6 Contra Costa County residents, according to the county’s health department. In 2021, 10% of all Californians, or roughly 4.3 million people, received benefits under the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“We were staying at hotels with COVID, and all of our income was going into the hotels,” said Gourley, remembering the hardships of spending the earnings from her husband’s new job. “We didn’t have the support elsewhere that we really needed at the time.”
A Google search led her to Loaves and Fishes.
“They very quickly knew what kind of stuff we liked and didn’t like,” Gourley said. “They were super excited to see the kids. So we started going pretty regularly.”
Loaves and Fishes was founded in 1983 by two Pittsburg women who made it their work to provide as many meals as they could for folks in need in their city.
“It started when they saw a family rummaging through a dumpster for food and decided they were going to start serving people,” Kennedy said. “They did 26 sandwiches out of the trunk of their car in Pittsburg and it grew into this organization.”
Since growing into a nonprofit, it has expanded to Oakley, Antioch, Martinez, Walnut Creek and Pittsburg. Its relatively new culinary arts training program lasts 12 weeks and seeks to assist people hoping for a career or to enroll into a long-term culinary arts academy.
“We’re hybrid now,” Kennedy said. “We learned that some people have a family member who is homebound, so we’re bringing in the community so people can sit down and eat and chat, as well as ‘grab and go’ style.”
To deal with the drastically increased demand, Loaves and Fishes’ board has opted to operate in a deficit rather than reduce services, Kennedy said. The small staff is heavily reliant on volunteers and donations.
They also hold some bigger annual fundraising events each year, where — despite working six days a week — Gourley has donated her time preparing meals as a way of giving back to the organization that helped her family so much.
“Any time there is an opportunity, I’ve been able to come back and help serve,” Gourley said.
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
How to help
Donations will help Loaves and Fishes of Contra Costa serve 2,000 warm holiday meals at its dining rooms and provide $10 grocery gift cards for 350 clients who cannot afford food. Goal: $7,500
How to give
Go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate or print and mail in the coupon.