Even before coronavirus, Sheryl Sandberg noticed "children in the dumpsters" looking for food in her community

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For years, Sheryl Sandberg has been working with her local food bank to help families in need, so it’s no surprise that the Facebook COO felt compelled to take action this week amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Sandberg tells PEOPLE she was grocery shopping with her new fiancé Tom Bernthal on Thursday when she came up with the idea to launch a COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Feeding Families, which was officially announced on Facebook on Friday.

“We were thinking about all the families that were not able to go out and stock up in case stores closed,” she explains. “As our schools were closing, our kids still get lunch anyway, but for many families it can be disastrous. This emergency fund was literally planned overnight.”

The fund, which partners with Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, will help the food bank pay their volunteers, whose numbers drastically decreased this week, so they can continue delivering food to families in need.

“This organization uses volunteers to distribute the food and they had a 37 percent decrease in volunteers showing up to help, and this is before the governor comes out and says not to be in big groups together,” Bernthal, 46, explains. “So the volunteers who were showing up to do the work are not showing up, which makes the program even more expensive.”

Sheryl Sandberg engaged
Sheryl Sandberg and Tom Bernthal
| Credit: Larissa Cleveland

In the area she currently lives and works, Sandberg says it’s not uncommon for families to struggle to put food on the table — and adds that she even witnessed “children in the dumpsters” looking for food long before the virus outbreak.

“One in three children in the Bay Area, alone, face food insecurity, meaning they don’t know for sure where their meal is coming from,” Sandberg explains. “With schools closing, with the lack of volunteers, this is an emergency.”

“I’ve been working with Second Harvest for a long time and we have story after story,” she continues. “This one child, before the crisis, was assigned a project to write about dinner and he went to his teacher and asked, ‘Is that the meal that other families eat at night?'”

“Every summer, there are children in the dumpsters of east Palo Alto because when school lets out and school lunches go away. It’s devastating to families,” she adds.

Sandberg has also incorporated Second Harvest into her son’s life from the time he was young, which she says helped him understand the importance of helping others in need.

Sheryl Sandberg engaged
Sheryl Sandberg and Tom Bernthal
| Credit: Larissa Cleveland

“My son was probably 6 when I took him to the food bank,” she says. “His job was to hand out bananas. He handed a bunch of eight bananas to a family and on the way home … we had a rule that he could only eat one banana a day because they can be constipating. He said, ‘Mom, I just gave eight bananas to a family of four, and I eat 30 bananas a month, and my sister eats bananas.'”

“It was a very concrete way for him to learn from a very early age that he has responsibility,” she adds. “The issue of food insecurity and access to food is one we care deeply about.”

Bernthal echoed her sentiments, telling PEOPLE that he has a 7-year-old son who has been helping with a food program in Santa Monica for three years and is now doing his part in the Bay Area.

“We have been getting ready to stay by ourselves up here and we made all decisions about how to stock up and we were lucky to be able to do that without having concerns for the financial stress,” he says. “To think about the people who are doing all this with the added layer of financial complication, it was impossible not to do this.”

In addition to kicking off the fund, Sandberg and Bernthal said in the Facebook post that they’re teaming up with Nike CEO John Donahoe and his wife Eileen, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer, Additional Ventures co-founder Erin Hoffmann, Benchmark general partner Bill Gurley and his wife Amy, Intuit co-founder Scott Cook and his wife Signe Ostby and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman to make a joint donation of $5.5 million.

Sandberg and Bernthal are also matching any donations that are made to her post’s fundraiser. As of Friday afternoon, over $70,000 has been raised.

“We’re encouraging people to donate to their local food bank, as well,” Sandberg says. “We are really hoping that people think about what’s going on with food security … we would love to see every local foodbank being supported like this.”

Donations to Sandberg and Bernthal’s fund can be made here.

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