Despite millions of dollars worth of monetary donations, food banks around the US are shuttering as they struggle to contend with COVID-19 and provide food relief. Volunteer help has dwindled because of social distancing and fear of contracting and spreading the disease.
To deal with the challenges brought on by the outbreak, food banks have put in place new protocols for handling and delivering food and maintaining a steady supply. But these challenges have shifted much of the burden onto food banks themselves, leading to skyrocketing operating costs and uncertainty about how long they’ll be able to respond. Here’s how the US is dealing with these challenges to feed those in need.
Hunger is a persistent problem in the US, affecting more than 37 million people in 2018, according to a report from the Department of Agriculture. Households with children are more likely to experience food insecurity, according to Feeding America, the country’s largest network of food banks. Food-insecure households often rely on local food banks and other hunger relief organizations for support.
But front-line workers are preparing for more dire circumstances, as the government continues to push shelter-in-place warnings and as unemployment rates continue to rise. Many food banks anticipate an increase in the coming months in the number of people seeking sufficient food supply for themselves and their families.
Small food banks in New York City, which has become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, have closed down because they haven’t gotten food to distribute or they don’t have the volunteers to man them. Many volunteers who have stopped their service are in their sixties and seventies, making them high-risk candidates to contract the most severe form of the virus.
As small food banks shut down, people seek out help from larger organizations, like Food Bank for New York City, which gives out about 58 million meals a year. But even with its larger network of resources, the organization is still struggling, and a number of its food pantries have closed.
Around the country, other food banks have also reported closing pantries, which often help larger banks distribute food directly to communities in need. Food banks in California, New Jersey, Texas and Washington, D.C. have witnessed the closure of food pantries or other distribution agencies and nonprofits they partner with to deliver food. Some food banks are seeing a decrease in the amount of food donated. The Capital Area Food Bank in Washington saw a 75 percent dip in donated food supply.
Despite closures and shortages in staff and supply, the demand for food has never been higher, forcing food banks to quickly learn how to ramp up their efforts with fewer resources on hand than normal.
The Central Texas Food Bank, for example, served about 50,000 people a week before social distancing guidelines were encouraged. As the virus gained traction in the US in late winter, the food bank began serving an additional 22,000 new individuals. Those numbers have continued to rise into April.
With food donations down, food banks have to find alternate ways to procure the same stream of supply. They’ve turned to purchasing food themselves using larger portions of their budgets to make it happen. Monetary donations, however, are on the rise. Multiple food banks have received financial donations from corporate supporters and foundations have been more generous lately, with individual monetary donations remaining despite a nationwide economic slowdown.
Some food banks have found other revenue streams and opportunities that help make ends meet. The Capital Area Food Bank has formed partnerships with Bank of America and Mars, the candy company, each donating $500,000 to help with the organization’s efforts to provide food to the newly food-insecure. The Central California Food Bank has partnered with a local tech company to facilitate delivery for home-bound individuals like seniors and people with disabilities.
Customers who can pick up their food are also on the receiving end of major changes. To minimize contact with food, volunteers and staff members at food banks across the US have begun boxing produce and shelf-stable items like pasta, rice and canned foods.
This unusual demand will likely persist even when the coronavirus dies down. Food banks are foreseeing people struggling financially for a long time and hope to be able to continue to respond to their food needs as time goes on. Aside from raising money, there are lingering concerns on where the food will come from in the near future.
So in recent weeks, food banks have had to balance double duty: rapidly adjust to new food distribution protocols to prioritize safety and avoid contamination while at the same time create a sustainable operation that lasts well beyond the coronavirus.
If this trend continues, food banks across the nation will be closing their doors, perhaps even beyond the pandemic. Food banks, and those who need them, could benefit from partnerships with food industry players to weather this storm.