Another COVID-19 Crisis: Food Banks Are In Peril As Need Surges

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Volunteers pack boxes full of food at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank on April 18, 2020 in San Raf...
Volunteers pack boxes full of food at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank on April 18, 2020 in San Rafael, California. Ezra Shaw/Getty

They’re called the “new needy” — folks who have been forced out of work as a result of shelter in place orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing has been vital to prevent the overwhelming of our healthcare systems, not to mention tens of thousands of deaths, from COVID-19, but it has also led to a sudden and severe spike in food insecurity. Food banks have been left to scramble to serve their communities’ increased needs with decreased donations and fewer volunteers, all while attempting to maintain social distancing and safe food practices.

As of the writing of this article, more than 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment since March 13 when President Trump declared a national emergency. 5.2 million of those claims were filed in the last week alone. Estimates for total unemployment suggest it could be as high as 16%, significantly higher than the 2009 Great Recession peak of 9.9% following the stock market crash of 2008.

Many who were surviving paycheck to paycheck prior to the pandemic now have no source of income and therefore no way to feed their families, so food banks have been faced with a sudden, unprecedented surge in need. Many people who have never needed assistance before have been forced to ask for help for the first time in their lives.

In places where coronavirus hit the hardest, especially in densely populated areas like New York City, Seattle, and Cleveland, demand is pushing food banks past their limits and way over budget. Feeding America, the largest network of food banks in the US, is predicting a $1.4 billion shortfall in the next six months. Even less populated areas, like Brevard County, Florida where I live, are seeing unprecedented and often unmeetable demand. “Groceries are flying off the shelves as fast as we can put them on there” says Keri Donald, Board Chair of the South Brevard Sharing Center in Melbourne, Florida.

Like grocery stores, food pantries are considered essential because they fill a need for their communities, and yet many food pantries aren’t set up to accommodate social distancing guidelines. Donald tells Scary Mommy, “we operate in an old building with close quarters and rely on the many hands of staff and volunteers, so logistically it is impossible to follow social distancing guidelines while utilizing the many hands it takes.”

In this aerial view, a double line of cars is seen as people wait to receive food assistance from the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida at a drive through event on April 17, 2020 at the New Jerusalem Church in Kissimmee, Florida. NurPhoto/Getty

As a result, because they don’t want to put volunteers at risk of contracting the virus, some food banks are functioning with decreased staff, trying to fill the roles that community volunteers would normally fill. Shifting to a drive-through model helps with social distancing for the public, but it requires more hands on deck from the food bank’s side. It takes a lot of bodies to coordinate the packaging and delivery of food and supplies to waiting vehicles. In some cities, car lines stretch for miles. In San Antonio, Texas, 10,000 cars lined up for a pop-up distribution center on a single day. A typical day services 400. Eric Cooper, president of that food bank, told The Guardian he fears they will soon have to ration food given to families.

Where I live in Brevard, as well as in other communities across the nation, local organizations and ministries have stepped in to help distribute meals to folks in need who can’t make it in person to the food pantry. Donald says this extra help has been vital to getting food distributed with “as little person-to-person interaction as necessary.”

But food bank directors are worried that federal assistance and public donations won’t sustain them. Costs have tripled for some, even as demand has increased up to ten-fold or more. Donald points out, “Just like grocery stores, we have the added strain of trying to procure and stock the food on our shelves — except we have to do it through donations and using our own cash reserves. There is supposed to be an additional $400 million for emergency food coming through the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, but because of the process of distributing the funding through the states, then down to the local level, no one has been able to give us an idea of when we are likely to start seeing that support.”

Volunteers prepare food donations from the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida for distribution to needy families at a drive through event on April 17, 2020 at the New Jerusalem Church in Kissimmee, Florida. NurPhoto/Getty

In the meantime, food banks turn to their local communities to try to fill that gap. In Brevard County, Florida, local residents and organizations have stepped up in a big way, but for the South Brevard Sharing Center and other food banks across the nation, it’s a real and pressing concern that their shortfalls will be too great to be met with public donations.

If you are in a position to offer help, your local food bank almost certainly could use it. Donald tells Scary Mommy that the thing food pantries need most right now is monetary donations. Money is better to donate than food since established food pantries will have partnerships that enable them to stretch the value of a dollar by buying food and other needed items at a discount or in bulk. They can also use donated cash to increase their capacity with more shelving, refrigeration, bags, boxes, PPE, etc.

Finding your local food pantry is as simple as googling “local food pantry.” And remember that any amount helps, whether it’s five dollars or five hundred. “We’ve seen a significant increase in households needing food pantry services every single week,” Donald says, “and we don’t see there being an end to that trajectory, even after things get ‘back to normal.’”

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