Food Banks and Pantries Are Seeing Their Greatest Need in Years — Here's How You Can Help Right Now
An estimated 50 million people in the U.S. will face hunger this year due to COVID-19. Here's how you can help.
According to Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in the U.S. with a network of 200 member food banks and 60,000 partner food programs, 35 million people faced hunger across the country before the onset of COVID-19. Now, as the pandemic continues, the organization projects that more than 50 million people will face hunger this year due to COVID-19.
"We've seen tremendous increase in the number of people visiting food banks nationwide," says Kathryn Strickland, chief network officer of Feeding America. "During the pandemic, the Feeding America network of food banks has consistently seen a 60 percent increase in demand compared to this time last year — with four in 10 people visiting food banks for the first time in their lives."
"We're serving an average of 3,000 households every week, and that could average between 9,000 to 10,000 individuals," says Karen Pozna, director of communications and special events for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, which works with more than 1,000 partner programs like food pantries, hot meal programs, and kids and senior programs. "About a quarter of the people we've been serving since the pandemic started are people coming for the first time who've never needed emergency food service before; that's about a 30 percent increase over last year.
"With the pandemic, so many people have found themselves in situations where they had to choose between food and medicine, or food and transportation,” she continues. “It was just overnight — their jobs were put on hold and shut down, or they were furloughed.
"The longer this has gone on, more and more people have found themselves in this situation," Pozna adds. "So many people may have had a savings that could get them through three or four months, but now that we're into month nine of this…"
Ira Rose-Kim, a volunteer coordinator with Bushwick Ayuda Mutua, an all-volunteer grassroots organization in the neighborhood within Brooklyn, New York, says that the organization has seen an increase in the number of people in need, too.
"Our numbers have definitely been climbing," Rose-Kim says. "On average, we probably serve around 700 people a week; recently that number has climbed and is well above 2,000 people a week."
"What's been really challenging about this pandemic is how quickly and dramatically the increase in need was," says Leslie Bacho, CEO of Second Harvest of Silicon Valley in Northern California. "Right away, as soon as shelter in place went into effect here in California, we saw a 50 percent and then a 100 percent increase in people coming to us. By June, we were serving 500,000 people every single month, and we've continued providing that level of service."
In Oregon and Southwest Washington, the Oregon Food Bank served about 865,000 people during the 2018-19 fiscal year. "We are well over one million so far this year, and that is for the 2020 calendar year," says Ashley Mumm, public relations manager. In addition to the pandemic, the region suffered the impact of wildfires this year, too.
"We've been incredibly busy since March, and the need is significantly higher than before," says Greg Trotter, associate director of communications with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which works with hundreds of food pantries and soup kitchens in the region. Trotter also says that even before the pandemic there was a hunger crisis in Chicago, and the communities that suffer a lack of investment and racial inequalities are some of the hardest hit by COVID and the rise in food insecurity. The network of pantries is serving an average of 50 percent more people in need compared to January; some weeks the number of people served has been 150 percent above January's figure.
"The increase of need across the network is the likes of which we've never seen in the course of our 41-year history," Trotter says. "Lines around the block and down the street. It's staggering and heartbreaking."
Adapting to the Times
"It's important to note that, given the unprecedented and rising demand of people facing hunger in America during the COVID-19 pandemic, operations have shifted, and food banks are also serving as distribution centers to help get more food to neighbors in need," says Strickland.
In addition to providing twice as much food as they were pre-pandemic, Bacho and her team, like food banks and pantries across the country, faced the challenge of having to do their work completely differently. Rather than just-in-time farmers' markets at which people could walk up and select what they needed, food is now boxed in warehouses and distributed at drive-thru sites.
"Pre-COVID, we had three drive-thru sites," says Bacho. "Now we have 130 drive-thrus; that's been a way to serve a lot of people at once in a way that's really safe."
The 20- to 25-pound boxes that Second Harvest of Silicon Valley provides include a dairy box with milk, eggs, and other dairy products; a box with dry goods like pasta, rice, cereal, and canned goods; and a box of mixed produce.
"Here in California, there's so much fresh produce, and so nearly half of what we distribute is produce," says Bacho.
"Since the pandemic started in mid-March, we've had to rethink everything we do, from our distribution to working with our pantries and partner agencies," says Pozna. "There are so many things to consider: safety protocols, distributing food in way that limits contact… it's funny to think back to when social distancing and wearing masks was such a new thing to us. We adapted very quickly.
"Prior to the pandemic we had a monthly distribution where folks would come to the food bank, come inside, wait in line, and fill a box of food of their choosing. We had other resources, too, like blood pressure checks, eye checks, employment information. Obviously when the pandemic hit, that [program model] just wasn't possible, so we adapted to a drive-thru distribution." The additional services had to be discontinued for the time being.
"We've been able to adjust pretty quickly to make it possible to get donations to people who need them," says Mumm. "We know not everyone comes to a food bank, and there's a lot more hunger than what we see."
"Food banks have become accustomed to this new level of demand, working tirelessly to keep inventory of food and resources high to help ensure neighbors have food on the table," says Strickland of Feeding America.
"We're really planning for the long haul," says Bacho. "This [the pandemic] has been so economically devastating for so many families. I think it's revealed how many people were living paycheck to paycheck prior to the pandemic, without a lot of savings.
"When people have had to wipe out their savings, they're in danger of losing their housing…," she continues. "People have been economically devastated by this and so it'll take a long time for people to recover. We're planning on providing this level of service for the foreseeable future."
Ponza says the same of her organization. "One thing that I know, I'm not sure we could have anticipated that this [pandemic] would have gone on, and the economic crisis that followed would go on and long as it has. We are planning well into 2021 for this to continue, and for us to adjust to and deal with. As long as the need is there… and the need was great before the pandemic."
Trotter agrees. "Hunger is a year-round problem, and this is definitely going to be a long-lasting crisis from what we're seeing. Those communities facing huge problems before the pandemic will be the slowest to rebound."
How to Help — Donate
When asked how people can help their local food banks and pantries, Trotter says without hesitation, "Donate or volunteer, those are the two main ways to help."
In regards to monetary donations, most food banks can make a dollar go further than we can at grocery stores. For example, every $1 helps provide three meals through the Greater Chicago Food Depository and Oregon Food Bank, and two meals through Second Harvest of Silicon Valley; the Greater Cleveland Food Bank can provide up to $10 worth of food for every $1 donated.
"We can really stretch peoples' dollars further than you can get at the store because we get so much donated," says Bacho. "If we do purchase [food], we're buying by the truckload and can negotiate really great deals. Our food bank alone receives more than 90 tractor trailer loads of product every week; the volume is quite huge.
"One of the big challenges has been doubling our budget, because we've doubled the food we're providing," Bacho continues. "We're purchasing more food than we usually do, even though the majority of our food is donated. Pre-pandemic, we only purchased about 22 percent of our food; now, sometimes that's as high as 39 percent."
As far as food donations from individuals, a lot of food banks are shying away from them this year. Bacho says there are two reasons: the first has to do with safety concerns and reducing the amount of traffic into the organization's offices, and many retail partners that usually have barrels in their stores to collect food donations have elected not to because concern about traffic and safety. Second, it takes a lot logistics-wise to coordinate smaller food collections and they're focusing efforts on transporting food out to distribution sites.
Additionally, Mumm says the Oregon Food Bank isn't accepting individual food donations because of the health risks of having to quarantine donated food, and volunteers sorting through that food. Instead, the organization procures a lot of food through donations from growers and food manufacturers.
There's another reason, too. Pozna says "One of our goals over the past few years has been to not only get the food out to people who need it most, but to make it more nutritious."
For those who are keen on donating food, consider buying most-needed items. Many food banks and pantries provide lists, like Top 10 Most Needed Items from the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, or choose items and buy them through the food bank itself, like the online Greater Chicago Food Depository Food Drive, which shows how many meals are provided by each product purchased.
How to Help — Volunteer
Many food banks and pantries rely on volunteers to help fulfill their missions, and the pandemic has effected those opportunities, too, though they do exist.
"Anyone who is healthy and able to help is welcome to volunteer their time at a food bank or a food pantry," says Strickland of Feeding America. "In fact, nearly two-thirds of food banks are in need of volunteers right now to help with food distributions and other critical activities."
Aside from financial contributions to help ensure it can serve neighbors on a consistent basis, Bushwick Ayuda Mutua is recruiting volunteers to join the team to help serve its mission. In addition to helping put food on the table, the organization partners with local businesses and community groups to help neighbors with other needs they may have, like immigration, remote learning support for school kids, legal services, housing, furniture, and more.
"If anyone has applicable skills, they definitely could help," says Rose-Kim. "Volunteers help with building out backend processes, packing and delivering groceries, fundraising and working with other groups to connect families with services."
"Even though we're still in the midst of the pandemic, we are now positioned with many safety protocols in place," says Pozna. "We want to make it as safe and comfortable as possible for volunteers, and still make it enjoyable, too. People have been great experiences, which is so important to getting the work done."
"It's amazing to see how much people have really rallied around helping each other," says Mumm, adding that the Oregon Food Bank is welcoming volunteers to come in and help. "We've limited the shift sizes and lengths, from four hours to two, and are working to recruit volunteers for local partners, too."
In Chicago, Trotter says that volunteers are needed to pack boxes and produce, and notes that safety precautions are in place in the large warehouse, like social distancing, requiring masks, providing PPE, and screening for COVID symptoms. He also encourages people to reach out to the food depository's partners for local, neighborhood experiences.
"We understand people have varying levels of concern about any level of risk," says Trotter. "Volunteering is a safe and empowering way to get out of the house and help out."