Suddenly jobless, locals stream to new food bank: now serving as many as 1,800 a day

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By Wendilyn Grasseschi
Times Reporter

The world changed two weeks ago, tumbling the vast majority of Mammoth’s hardworking locals into complete, dramatic and unanticipated unemployment almost overnight.
The consequences were immediate. On March 23, when the town’s tourism agency opened a food bank that it set up in the driving snow on the steps of the old Coach store off Main Street, some 1,200-1,800 people showed up.
Since that day, with the food bank operating three days a week, twice a day, the traffic has barely lifted.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The town, looking forward to an influx of skiers following the first good snow of the year, shut down after the Mountain closed in the face of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, sending thousands of seasonal employees scattering to far-flung homes.
Like a string of dominos, hotels, restaurants, and motels furloughed or laid off thousands more, sending many into almost immediate financial insecurity.
In the past week, the layoffs have continued; more trade workers, such as contractors, plumbers, electricians have followed the first wave, according to town officials.
The situation in a town where more than half the population already lives close to the bone has been dramatic and traumatic; thousands of the town’s 7,000-8,000 permanent residents are now suddenly, without time to plan and save, without work and as such, without income.
“We have estimated that unemployment here in Mammoth Lakes right now could be north of 80-85 percent, and we know people are in need,” said John Urdi, Mammoth Lakes Tourism director.
The most immediate need, out of the dozens of emergencies facing unemployed residents is the most primal one; the need to eat, to put food on the table for parents, grandparents, kids, babies.
As such, Urdi said, it was time to find a way to support the people who support the tourism industry that makes Mammoth function – the workers.
“We had a special board meeting on March 16, and it was clear that we needed to do what we could to protect the businesses,” he said. “That meant we wanted to work on a way to keep people from leaving town so that when it is time to re-open, we still have people here to work. So, I was thinking, we had quite a bit of reserves in our Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID). (These are) dollars collected from guests who have stayed in lodging, eaten at restaurants, purchased retail items or ski lift tickets,” he said. “We wanted to use some of that money to give back to the employees of those businesses which are the hardest hit. We wanted to let them know we don’t want them to go, we want them here.
“Lodging, retail and restaurants is where most of the people were laid off and that is also where most of the businesses who have been paying into the TBID were,” he said. “So, we checked into it to see if we could use the money for something like a food bank and we could. As such, we approved $50,000 to be used for a food bank, working with U.S. Foods to get the food wholesale. They already supply the Northern Nevada Food Bank and we had good relations with them.
“We thought it would go a long way, at least several weeks, but we are going through $7,500-$10,000 a day,” he said. “We just approved another $50,000 the other day. The response and gratitude of those being served by the food bank reinforce that MLT is doing the right thing in this crisis.”
Already, he said, MLT employees and many community volunteers are working six days a week figuring out how to distribute, account for and package all the food that will be needed for the Monday, Wednesday and Friday food bank hours (it is a drive-thru food bank to keep workers and the public safely distanced from one another; the hours are 10 a.m.-12 p.m. and 3-5 p.m. on each of these three days).
After the second $50,000 is gone?
That is where the rest of Mammoth has stepped up to the plate, he said. “When we started, we were hesitant to ask for private donations, but people were asking us, and asking us and asking us what they could do to help. Second homeowners were asking, especially, he said. “They love this place, they do not want to see us fail.”
The word went out and he said, the response was massive. “We got $25,000 in donations in less than a week,” he said. “It was amazing. We do have some fairly large donors; we have one, for example, that is sending a recurring $1,000 a month. We also had a call with a large foundation that wants to help us with a grant,” he said, and he added that MLT still has a good-sized reserve fund, after years of being fiscally careful, although some of that will have to be saved for when the town reopens for business, be that this summer or fall.
The food is free; the only questions asked are where are people laid off from, and how many are in the family, he said.
There has been other support as well, he said.
“Many restaurants have contributed produce and other goods which have been great to supplement our purchases from U.S. Foods; Mammoth Mountain has donated literally tons of produce and other food, including about 150 gallons of milk each day,” he said. “Supporters also include Gomez's; Slocum's; Side Door; Black Velvet Coffee; Stellar Brew; Morrison's; Petra's & Clocktower; Thai'd Up; Liberty Bar; Starbucks; Vons and Paul and Kathleen Rudder who donated the space for the food bank, i.e. the old Coach Store between Black Velvet and Sun and Ski Sports.”

IF YOU WANT TO HELP
The Mammoth Lakes Chamber of Commerce Foundation (501c3). People can go to www.visitmammoth.com/communityresources and click on the Food Bank link to donate.

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