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The Fight Against Pandemic Hunger Is Far from Over

updated Jun 28, 2021
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Three months and a year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, long lines still snake outside the beleaguered food pantries and meal sites served by the Atlanta Community Food Bank. The amount of foodstuffs distributed across the bank’s 29-county territory remains staggering — more than 60 percent higher than before the pandemic.

“We’re still seeing people come even for the first time in their lives, because they either have a complete job loss or they still have really reduced hours,” said Heather Moon, Atlanta Community Food Bank’s public relations manager. Between this and last April, the bank distributed roughly 94 million meals — the most ever in its more than 40-year history. “It’s just been absolutely astronomical, the need,” Moon said.

That sentiment was echoed by a wide span of food banks with whom Kitchn consulted for this article. Across the country, those serving people experiencing hunger want you to know that even with hope on the horizon, as COVID-19 cases fall and vaccination rates rise, the fight against pandemic-induced hunger isn’t anywhere near over.

Many food banks are still relying on contactless or low-contact distribution methods, including the Food Bank for the Heartland, which distributes food to 600 nonprofit organizations in Nebraska and western Iowa. In March 2020, the explosion of out-of-work and suddenly food-insecure people was only part of the tricky equation. It also had to contend with the logistics of mitigating the COVID-19 risk during distribution. The food bank quickly pivoted from grocery-style pickups that allow clients to choose their own food to pre-packed bags that limit points of contact.

“Volunteers put the food directly into waiting cars,” said Food Bank for the Heartland communications manager Angie Grote. “Most of our distributions are still that drive-up model, even today.” Everything has to be packed, bagged, and boxed for distribution — a challenge made all the more difficult because most food banks have had to slash their volunteer workforces.

“We had to cut our volunteer shift sizes essentially in half to accommodate social distancing,” Grote said. With protocols still in place, the bank is still operating with half its 2019 volunteer manpower. But Grote considers her operation one of the lucky ones. “Our volunteer center was able to remain open, whereas other food banks had to close their operations for a time due to the pandemic.”

Another chronic issue reported by many food banks is the soaring price of food. This fiscal year, the Greater Chicago Food Depository budgeted $30 million for food purchasing, more than double the amount for the previous year. 

“This is due to both an increase in demand for food assistance and increase in prices,” said Megan Bennett, a communications specialist for the depository. Also driving the increase in food spending? A change in the type of products the depository seeks. “[We were] paying more for certain kinds of shelf-stable items (for example, cereal and a variety of canned goods) as we shifted toward making hundreds of thousands of emergency food boxes.”

For All Faiths Food Bank, which serves Sarasota and DeSoto counties in Florida, part of the problem is a decrease in food donations from retail partners. Prior to the pandemic, “probably a third of our food was donated from our retail partners like Publix and Wal-Mart,” said CEO, Sandra Frank. Through the pandemic and into 2021, “retail donations are very low, so we need to purchase more food.” 

Complicating things, too, is the termination of the USDA’s Farmers to Family Food Box program, which delivered almost 150 million boxes of food to roughly 11,000 nonprofit organizations, including food banks. The program was beset by problems — many reported food spoiling before boxes ever reached needy recipients — and Frank agrees that it wasn’t the most efficient way to get food on the table. There’s hope that a new Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, announced in mid-April, and the USDA’s longstanding, pre-COVID Emergency Food Assistance Program will pick up the slack. But after a long year of uncertainty and struggle, Frank remains worried that the proposed assistance won’t be enough. “There’s a lot of it we don’t understand yet,” she said.

Even so, nearly all of the food banks we spoke with expressed things are better now than in the first months of the pandemic. Students returning to in-person classes means that kids in need have better access to food programs designed around schools. The supply chain has in large part stabilized, making it easier to source a wider range of products. Now, many operations are thinking about how to implement lessons hard-learned.

“We are pivoting to figure out how to shore up our systems in case of future emergency situations,” said Katie Mandes, the director of marketing and strategic initiatives for the Federation of Virginia Food Banks. That means investing in more storage and refrigeration infrastructure and prioritizing capital investment. The organization is also thinking more about how to help difficult-to-reach rural populations, investing in targeted programming and new strategies.

All Faiths Food Bank is using data to pinpoint food insecurity. Relying on a pre-pandemic study commissioned by the food bank network Feeding Florida and the 2020 Census, the food bank was able to break down the number of missing meals by census block. On top of that, they layered SNAP data, which is updated weekly.

“With that SNAP data, we did indeed pinpoint the neighborhoods that were newly affected by COVID,” Frank said. Many included areas that All Faiths Food Bank had never serviced before, underscoring how effective data analysis can help redirect efforts to better serve the community at large.

Here’s the Best Way to Help Right Now

How can everyday people best help food banks around the country? Every single organization had the same answer: Donate money. Many operations, including All Faiths Food Bank, aren’t even accepting food donations at this time, citing COVID concerns. “The best way truly is a financial gift,” Frank said. 

“We’re purchasing food by the semi-truck load, so we can do more with a donated dollar than if you or I were going to a grocery store,” said Food Bank for the Heartland’s Angie Grote. 

“One dollar that people donate can help purchase the equivalent of about three meals,” agreed Greater Chicago Food Depository‘s Megan Bennett.

What else do food banks want you to know? All stressed that food insecurity cuts across communities, often affecting those who never thought they’d be in such a position — something that’s never more true than in this pandemic era.

“In our service area, one in five children are food-insecure and one in seven adults are food-insecure,” said Atlanta Community Food Bank’s Heather Moon. “When you think about that, if you have five neighbors to your left and a family of six to the right, it could be someone who lives right next to you. You just never know.”

Find your local food bank here, and donate to Feeding America here.