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.
Food banks have put in place new protocols for handling and delivering food and maintaining a steady supply to deal with the challenges brought on by the outbreak. But food banks have mostly been on the receiving end of these challenges, leading to uncertainty about how long they’ll be able to respond coupled with skyrocketing operating costs. Here’s how the US is dealing with these challenges to feed those in need.
Affecting more than 37 million people in 2018, hunger is a persistent problem in the US. And according to Feeding America, households with children are more likely to experience food insecurity. Food-insecure households often rely on local food banks and other hunger relief organizations for not only food, but 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 number of people seeking sufficient food supply for themselves and their families in the coming months.
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, like the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, are seeing a decrease in the amount of food and supplies donated.
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.
For example, the Central Texas Food Bank served about 50,000 people just a week before social distancing guidelines were encouraged. As the virus gained traction in the US by mid-March, the food bank began serving an additional 22,000 more individuals. Those numbers have continued to rise into April.
Food banks have had to find alternate ways to procure a steady stream of supply since the drop in donations. They’ve resorted 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.
The Capital Area Food Bank has found other ways to ends meet. It 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. Another food bank taking similar initiatives is the Central California Food Bank, which 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 taking advantage 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 unusually high demand will likely persist even when the coronavirus pandemic passes. Since food banks are foreseeing people struggling financially for a long time, they hope to be able to respond to their food needs as time goes on. Aside from budget, there remain concerns on where the food will come from in the near future.
So in recent weeks, food banks have had to balance double duty: quickly adjust to new food distribution protocols to prioritize safety and avoid contamination while creating 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.