More than seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, millions of U.S. families are struggling to pay for basic necessities. Some families can’t afford diapers, and others are being threatened with eviction. One in every six households doesn’t have enough to eat.
About 5 million school children live in a household where people can’t afford sufficient food. Many parents rely on free or reduced-price school lunches for their children, but with the increase in virtual schooling, they’re scrambling to provide additional meals during the week.
About 10 percent of American adults, 22.3 million, reported they sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat within the past week, according to the August U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey. Recent disasters of rampant fires and destructive hurricanes have only intensified the need for help.
Food insecurity is as much about the threat of deprivation as it is about deprivation itself: A food-insecure life means a life lived in fear of hunger and the psychological toll that it takes.
Like many hardships, this burden falls disproportionately on Black and Hispanic families, who are almost twice as likely to experience food insecurity as white families.
Over the summer there was a 60 percent average increase in demand for food assistance at Feeding America’s network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries across the country compared to the same time period last year. Americans who never saw themselves at risk of food insecurity are turning to private nonprofits that distribute free meals.
“Never has the charitable food system faced such tremendous challenge, and we need all the resources we can get to help our neighbors during this terrible time,” said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America.
Every city across the nation is racing to fight hunger. Some have organized food drives and distribution sites to meet the increase in people seeking help. The queues waiting to pick up boxes of food extends for hours. People line up as early as 5 a.m. and wait as long as six hours at some of the larger distribution sites. Some sites run out of food and have to turn people away empty-handed.
One morning, staff members of the Food Bank of Northwest Louisiana saw a man standing in line with reusable grocery bags. After filling his bags, he was painstakingly considering how much food he could carry on his four-mile walk home. Then a member of the food bank’s staff recognized him and offered a lift. While such heart-wrenching scenes speak to the despair brought on by COVID-19, volunteers continue to step up.
Food banks have seen record increases in need even as donations and volunteers dwindle
Food banks across the nation are stretched thin from the burden of hunger as the pandemic has forced more families facing hardships to request help and the federal food stamp assistance has become more difficult for people to access (administrative volume).
With the increased demand, food banks are adding to growing costs since they’re often leasing outside storage space at higher-than-normal rates and have brought on more workers to handle the goods. “The pandemic is putting pressure on a system that was already struggling to make sure all the food we are producing finds its way to people,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic.
In addition, social distancing guidelines have brought on tremendous logistical challenges to food banks.
Before the pandemic, customers walked through and selected their own items. But requirements for social distancing and contactless handoffs required rethinking distribution. Volunteers now fill prefabricated boxes, a more laborious process, and deliver them to individual cars in a mega mobile food distribution channel. In some areas, volunteer drivers are delivering food directly to homes or to institutions in need.
Even though the food banks need more volunteers to pre-pack the meals, almost all have reported a decline in volunteers—partly because volunteers tend to be retirees, older people who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus. The nonprofits in Feeding America’s network have lost nearly 60 percent of their volunteers. Food banks are so desperate that they’ve started asking food recipients to be helpers when they’re not looking for work.
Food sources and outside distribution channels are challenged or non-existent now
The pandemic has complicated the sourcing of food to the food banks.
In ordinary times, millions of dollars worth of food per month comes from corporate contributions — generally, items donated by grocery stores once the stores think they can’t sell it. But now, stores are donating only one-fourth of what they used to give.
And many food banks are experiencing lags in supply because of the multiple hurricanes and California wildfires. To replace the missing donations, and fill the needs of far more consumers on top of that, food banks have to buy food.
“No crisis has ever strained our ability to serve those in need as much as coronavirus,” says Derrick Chubbs, president of the Central Texas Food Bank. His organization didn’t have money set aside in its operating budget to purchase food to replace disappearing grocery donations. The cancellation of a major Austin music festival, which usually raises about $200,000 for the food bank, has intensified the financial strain.
If that’s not enough, many distribution partners, like soup kitchens and shelters, are closed.
City Harvest has seen more than 85 of the 400 food programs it works with in New York shut down. In response, City Harvest has created seven emergency relief sites to bring food to vulnerable neighborhoods, with plans to introduce 22 more.
Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks, projects a 6 billion to 8 billion meal shortfall in the next 12 months, a deficit that may be magnified with federal food assistance programs set to expire soon. Feeding America estimates the total need for charitable food over the next year will reach 17 billion pounds, more than three times last year’s distribution.
The pandemic has presented a disaster unlike any other, and there is no established plan to help food banks manage it.
In this podcast, CEO of Feeding America Claire Babineaux-Fontenot talks about the added urgency of hunger in the midst of a pandemic and the policies that need to change to tackle food insecurity in our country. She states that 40 percent of the people who have turned to Feeding America this year have never relied on a food system before. Sadly, more than 20 million of those in need are kids (40 percent of the estimated 50 million people Feeding America will serve this year).
Providing food for those who are food insecure is a very complicated and daunting issue. What we do know is this pandemic has revealed new helpers: individuals, showing us the best of humanity, who have discovered practical ways to help.
Highlight of The Week: Creative distribution of farm-fresh food
When George Ahearn heard farmers were destroying unsold produce, he arranged for trucks to deliver tons of it to food banks.
The pandemic has seriously backed up food supply chains, and farmers often have to throw away ton after ton of excess product that can’t reach restaurants or grocery store shelves.
In Washington state, a unique non-profit is helping re-route all that farm-fresh produce to people who need it. A few months ago, George Ahearn, who grew up in the farming town of Othello, Washington, got the idea to connect farmers in the eastern part of the state with food banks and meal programs in the west.
He soon discovered that idea meant finding and managing volunteers to help clean and bag the food too, which the nonprofit has figured out how to supply. To date, EastWest Food Rescue has delivered eight million pounds of produce to help people in need.
Challenge of The Week: Donate or volunteer to help feed the hungry
Food banks, as private operations, don’t get federal money and are supported by individual donations or corporate dollars. But it’s much more difficult to fundraise during the pandemic. The best way to help right now is to either volunteer or donate money.
Volunteer for one of the weekly mobile distribution events that need a lot of hands-on help to run smoothly. There are assignments of all sorts, ranging from directing traffic to loading groceries into families’ cars. Right now there are volunteer shortages, so check with your local food bank to see what they need.
There are also a number of other worthy nonprofits that can use your donations:
- Save the Children is delivering meals to kids during the pandemic.
- Blessings in a Backpack helps provide food on the weekends for elementary school children across America who might otherwise not have enough to eat.
- World Central Kitchen purchases meals from local restaurants and delivers them to people who need them.
GiveDirectly, has partnered with Propel, a company that uses technology to help SNAP recipients (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program once known as food stamps) manage their benefits, and gives cash to people chosen at random, like a lottery. Recipients must receive SNAP benefits and also use Fresh EBT, a food stamp balance smartphone app.
The pandemic has created a crisis for so many families when it comes to feeding their children and themselves. Let’s step up, and give our time or our money to help meet the need!
Kendall Webb, Executive Director