Food banks face going millions of dollars over budget as they struggle to meet surging demand from those hit hard by mass layoffs caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Across the US, not-for-profit groups are buying truckloads of increasingly expensive food to cope with the sharp increase in the “new needy” – and the dramatic decline
Food banks face going millions of dollars over budget as they struggle to meet surging demand from those hit hard by mass layoffs caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Across the US, not-for-profit groups are buying truckloads of increasingly expensive food to cope with the sharp increase in the “new needy” – and the dramatic decline in donations from supermarkets left empty by panic shoppers.
The pressures are widespread and growing, according to more than 20 food banks and pantries across 15 states consulted by the Guardian. For example, in Pennsylvania, food banks are spending an extra $1m a week and yet still turning hungry families away.
In Alabama, one pantry looks set to go $3.6m over budget by August as food purchases and running costs – electricity, cleaning materials, boxes and overtime – have tripled: “We’re applying for grants as fast as we can,” said Jenny Waltman from Grace Klein pantry in Birmingham.
The recent rise in public donations is unlikely to offset projected shortfalls.
“We have enough food for the next month,” warned Lisa Scales, president of Pittsburgh food bank where the money spent buying food has tripled. “With so many businesses shutting, we’re concerned community donations won’t sustain this level.”
How you can help US food banks in the Covid-19 pandemic
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 40 million Americans relied on food banks to get enough to eat. Now, the demand for emergency food aid is growing exponentially as millions of people lose their jobs.
As this demand grows, food banks are receiving far fewer donations from retailers as people are buying in bulk, so stocks are low. This means food banks must buy more supplies to make sure they have enough to feed every hungry American asking for help.
The Feeding America network of 200 food banks secures and distributes 4.3 billion meals each year through 60,000 food pantries and meal programs. They help vulnerable communities including the elderly and disabled, as well as providing free nutritional lunches for school children from low-income families.
If you want to help, find your local food bank, and go to their website to donate. You can also donate to Feeding America’s Covid-19 response fund.
Food banks rely on volunteers, and Feeding America and food pantries across the US urgently need help as most regular volunteers are senior citizens who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. If you are interested in becoming a new volunteer, use Feeding America’s tool to find your local food bank or pantry but please get in touch with them first before showing up. Remember, if you’re worried about your own health or the risk to a family member, “stay home” is the advice.
The economic fallout of the global health crisis has seen record numbers of first-timers – people who have never previously needed food aid – flocking to new drive-thru distribution centres, which have been created to comply with social distancing rules.
Queues up to six miles long have become common at these pop-up collection points as far afield as San Antonio, Las Vegas, and Cleveland, where thousands of recently furloughed and unemployed people wait hours for grocery boxes.
As demand escalates, the price of non-perishable staples such as peanut butter, eggs, canned vegetables, beans, pasta, rice and jam is soaring, while supplies are running low with four- to eight-week delays and bottlenecks reported across the supply chain.
A worker moves food onto the floor of the United Center in Chicago, Illinois, on 20 March. Photograph: AP
The wholesale cost of rice has almost tripled and won’t be delivered until June, according to one Pennsylvania-based distributor that supplies more than 40 food banks. “Canned fruit and veg are very hard to get, rice and pasta is challenging, and costs have gone crazy as manufacturers pay more for labor, food and transport,” said Mike Fellinger.
“If you find rice it’s like gold,” added Ron Mizutani, president of the Hawaii food bank.
In response, innovative schemes have emerged to take advantage of an abundance of perishable produce such as tomatoes, apples and milk which would otherwise be dumped or left rotting in fields. An estimated 30-40% of the US food supply is wasted, which is the equivalent to throwing out $161bn of produce annually.
However, in one plan, Feeding Florida is paying local farmers to continue harvesting thousands of acres of crops, some of which is turned into freezable soups, sauces and ready meals by a network of idle restaurateurs.
The unfolding public health crisis has triggered the worst economic crisis in almost a century, exposing the precarious state of millions of working Americans thanks to weak labor rights, eroded government safety nets and low wages.
“It’s not surprising to see so many ‘new needy’, when even before the pandemic, millions of working Americans were already living on the edge of poverty, making tough choices between food and rent and bills every month,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Washington-based Food Research and Action Centre (Frac).
In 2019, about 40 million Americans received free meals or groceries through a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries, schools, soup kitchens and shelters, according to Feeding America. The working poor, elderly and disabled and infirm accounted for the vast majority of recipients.
Since then, more than 22 million people have filed for unemployment benefits, though the true number of layoffs is probably significantly higher.
A teacher gives food to people in cars in North Babylon, New York, on 16 April. Photograph: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Unsurprisingly, the demand for food aid has risen exponentially, and is mostly driven by first-timers, according to groups in Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington.
For instance, at pantries in Silicon Valley, demand is increasing about 50% each week, with first-timers such as security and cafeteria staff furloughed by tech companies, teachers and restaurant workers accounting for more than half of those needing food.
“It’s not surprising. We already knew a lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck,” said Leslie Bacho, chief executive of Second Harvest food bank, which spent $250,000 on cleaning supplies in March.
No savings and staggering debts: in 2019 Americans owed $14tn including $1.3tn in car loans, $1tn on credit cards, $1.48 in student loans and $9.4tn to mortgage lenders.
In Las Vegas, drivers of luxury vehicles queued for food boxes. “When you see a Lexus in line at 4am prepared to wait six hours, you know there’s real need,” said Larry Scott from Nevada’s Three Square food bank.
In Seattle, Washington, the Northwest Harvest food bank expects expenditure to increase eightfold to $8.4m a month through September.
Feeding Alabama expects to spend $1.71m purchasing food by July – compared to $1.1m during 2018, and $543,443 in 2019 when food banks benefited from a commodities surplus created by Donald Trump’s trade wars.
In Louisiana, at least one in three people are at risk of hunger, compared with one in five before this crisis, according to Natalie Jayroe, president of South Harvest food bank. “We think it will conservatively cost us $15m for six months … In south Louisiana, we’ve been through our share of disasters but this is different.”
The Greater Cleveland food bank could go $4.9m – or 26% – over budget by September. They have stopped buying peanut butter, a high-protein grocery box staple, since the price rose $10 a case.
Last week in San Antonio, Texas, an unprecedented 10,000 people showed up in their cars for a pop-up distribution centre – a drive-thru service which typically attracted 400 before the layoffs. That day, 25 semi-trucks of food were handed out, much of it to newly laid off hospitality staff whose last paycheck was already gone, according to Eric Cooper, president of the food bank.
People wait in their cars at Traders Village for the San Antonio food bank in Texas on 9 April. Photograph: William Luther/AP
As demand rises, Cooper warns that supplies will run short: “The only thing we can do is ration and give families less … I would challenge our federal government to put systems in place that allow for wasted food to go to families we are feeding. It’s unconscionable.”
As the coronavirus economic hurt intensifies, federal aid is slowly starting to trickle down to ordinary people, including the $1,200 stimulus payment for those with bank accounts.
The rescue packages did expand the food stamps programme (Snap), but the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has so far refused to fully extend eligibility using available disaster powers. “This would help tackle hunger and stimulate the economy, but for some reason the USDA isn’t using all the tools in its box,” said Vollinger from Frac.
It’s unclear when or how the country will return to some semblance of normal, meanwhile America’s hunger crisis is likely to last months – or longer.
Kristin Warzocha of Greater Cleveland said: “I already fear we’re not reaching everyone who needs help, and we haven’t seen anything yet! We will do everything in our power, but philanthropy is not going to fix this crisis.”