by Nina Lakhani, The Guardian:
Food banks are reporting unprecedented demand across the US as millions lose jobs, investigation shows
An unprecedented number of Americans have resorted to food banks for emergency supplies since the coronavirus pandemic triggered widespread layoffs.
The demand for food aid has increased as much as eightfold in some areas, according to an investigation by the Guardian, which gives a nationwide snapshot of the hunger crisis facing the US as millions become unemployed.
About one in three people seeking groceries at not-for-profit pantries last month have never previously needed emergency food aid, according to interviews with a dozen providers across the country.
The national guard has been deployed to help food banks cope with rising demand in cities including Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Phoenix amid growing concerns that supplies may run low as the crisis evolves. Overstretched food pantries are switching to drive-thrus and home deliveries to minimize the spread of Covid-19 as almost 300 million Americans are urged to stay at home.
“I’ve been in this business over 30 years, and nothing compares to what we’re seeing now. Not even when the steel mills closed down did we see increased demand like this,” said Sheila Christopher, director of Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, which represents 18 food banks across 67 counties.
Last year, 4.3bn meals were distributed to more than 40 million Americans through a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries, schools, soup kitchens and shelters, according to Feeding America, the national food bank network. The working poor, elderly and disabled and infirm accounted for the vast majority of food bank users.
This week, the Guardian contacted food banks and pantries in nine states, which all reported unprecedented demand, plummeting donations from retailers, and a fall in personnel due to the coronavirus crisis.
- In Amherst, home to the University of Massachusetts’ largest campus, the pantry distributed 849% more food in March compared with the previous year. The second-largest increase in western Massachusetts was 748% at the Pittsfield Salvation Army pantry.
- The Grace Klein community food pantry in Jefferson county, which has the largest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Alabama, provided 5,076 individuals with food boxes last week – a 90% increase on the previous week.
- In southern Arizona, demand has doubled, with pantries supplying groceries to 4,000 households every day – double the number supplied in March 2019. “We saw an increase during the federal government shutdown but nothing as rapid, massive or overwhelming as this,” said Michael McDonald, CEO of the Community Food Bank of South Arizona.
- A helpline set up by the Greater Pittsburgh community food bank has received more than a thousand calls in the past two weeks, 90% of which came from newly unemployed people. Here, pantries ordered 50% to 60% more food for March and April than usual.
- The Lakeview pantry in Chicago is on track to provide food for as many as 2,000 individuals this week – compared with 1,100 before the coronavirus crisis.
- The north Florida food bank, which relied heavily on contributions from retailers, has seen donations drop by 85% to 90% as shoppers bulk-buy, leaving shelves empty. But donations from restaurants, golf tournaments and even Disney World have increased, so the food bank is switching to ready meals, paying furloughed chefs to cook for thousands of senior citizens in housing facilities.
- In Las Vegas, the Three Square food bank has increased weekly food distribution by 30%, from 1m to 1.3m lbs of food. New drive-thru distribution centres have been set up across the valley as 170 of its 180 distribution outlets have been forced to temporarily close due to CDC social distancing guidelines. “Every line at every distribution centre exceeds the amount of food in our trucks,” said chief operating officer Larry Scott.
- The Kansas City-based Harvesters food bank, which serves 16 counties in north-east Kansas and 10 in north-west Missouri, sent out 12,000 boxes to pantries on Monday 23 March – a 140% rise on the 5,000 boxes typically ordered. “It was the largest distribution day in our 40-year history,” said its communications manager, Gene Hallinan.
This snapshot is representative of the national picture, according to Feeding America. “This is a perfect storm impacting food banking as we know it,” said a spokeswoman, Zuani Villarreal.