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Community Services Agency takes its show on the road

Converted RV will make food pantry deliveries throughout North County

The Community Services Agency (CSA) of Mountain View and Los Altos has long been a bastion of support services for low-income and homeless residents of North County, providing free groceries to residents who can stop by its headquarters on Stierlin Road. But the big question is: what about all the residents who can't make the trek to downtown Mountain View?

CSA is looking to solve this quandary. In the coming weeks, the agency will be launching a new mobile food pantry program designed to extend the agency's reach to areas with needy residents who may not have the means to travel to CSA. Details on the route are still to come, but the "CSA on Wheels" program is expected to make several several stops throughout the North County on Thursdays and Fridays.

CSA Executive Director Tom Myers said it's become increasingly clear that not everyone who needs food can make it to CSA's office, particularly residents who don't have a car and have to rely on sluggish public transportation. Anyone looking to pick up groceries also has to stop by during CSA's operating hours, which can also be a challenge.

"People are realizing that you can't always open your front door and expect people to walk in," Myers said. "If we have the ability to get services to them, then let's take advantage of that."

Earlier this year, CSA agreed to team up with the West Valley Community Services to share an RV, donated by Second Harvest Food Bank, that had been converted into the mobile pantry on wheels. While CSA is expected to provide the food, Santa Clara County will be paying for the operating cost of the service, estimated at $473,844 over the next three years.

County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who proposed the budget item in June, said that the mobile pantry will amount to much more than a "book-mobile for groceries." He said people show up at places like CSA get food, but while there they also have access to support services and case managers. It's important to extend those services to the residents who can't make it out to these offices, Simitian said.

"If they are isolated or don't have access to transportation, either because of their income or their senior status, they not only don't get the nutritional food they need, they also are less likely to come in contact with someone that can provide case management services," Simitian said at the June 15 budget hearing. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to approve the funding.

Josh Selo, the executive director of West Valley Community Services, told the Voice that there are tens of thousands of people living in poverty in the West Valley area, but only a small number make it to their office for help. What it boils down to, Selo said, is a transportation issue. One client said he traveled eight hours round trip using public transportation to come in, only to arrive home and find that most of his food had spoiled.

"Public transportation is slow, so it's difficult to get around if you don't have a car," Selo said. "It's tough to sit on a bus for two, three or four hours just to get help."

As it stands right now, West Valley Community Services will be operating the vehicle Monday through Wednesday, and will turn it over to CSA for Thursdays and Fridays. Right now, the plan is to have the mobile pantry make a stop at locations including Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, as well as the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Palo Alto.

"A lot of people don't realize there's a lot of students up there (at Foothill) who are from low-income families," Myers said. "We just entered an agreement to provide food pantry services up at Foothill College, so this van will be very helpful."

The West Valley on Wheels -- or CSA on Wheels, depending on the day -- is one of several social services that have taken to the streets in order to reach an increasing number of residents. Dignity on Wheels, a program provided by East Palo Alto-based Project WeHOPE, provides shower and restroom services for homeless people through a mobile facility, and is outfitted with two washing machines and clothes dryers.

There's also a slate of mobile clinics in the Bay Area, some of which operate here in the North County. Earlier this year, the El Camino Healthcare District awarded Santa Clara-based Health Mobile a $150,000 grant to operate "mobile clinics" in the Sunnyvale and Mountain View area. The clinics are designed to provide dental care -- anything from a check-up to a root canal -- to low-income residents. For more than 15 years, the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital has been providing health services for uninsured and homeless youth between the ages of 10 and 25 through its Teen Health Van, which travels throughout Santa Clara County.

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