How Food Banks Stepped Up To Feed the Millions of Americans Going Hungry During the Pandemic

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Photo: Getty Images / Oscar Wong
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a massive strain on most people's lives around the world thanks to layoffs, pay cuts, and more—leaving millions of Americans unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. And there are few places where the urgency of our current situation manifests more clearly than at America's food banks, aka non-profits that store food to be distributed to food pantries and kitchens.

"Our food bank's been around 35 years, and we've never seen an increase in need like this," says Michael Altfest, director of community engagement and marketing at Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, California. Jason A. Stephany, director of strategic communications for Oregon Food Bank, calls the pandemic "the worst hunger and food insecurity that we've seen in a generation," and notes that his organization has gone from serving 860,000 people in a year to a projected one to two million in the same span of time. The Houston Food Bank, meanwhile, has seen a 130 to 150 percent increase in demand, which amounts to 2.75 million people, according to spokesperson Maggi Massad-Paradeis.

Experts In This Article
  • Glen Curado, Glen Curado is the founder and CEO of World Harvest Food Bank in Los Angeles, California.
  • Jason A. Stephany, Jason Stephany is the director of strategic communications for Oregon Food Bank.
  • Maggi Massad-Paradeis, Maggi Massad-Paradeis is a marketing and communications manager at Houston Food Bank.
  • Michael Altfest, Michael Altfest is the director of community engagement and marketing at Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, California.

This massive need for food has occurred despite the benefits provided by the $2 trillion CARES Act passed back in March, which included expanded unemployment and SNAP benefits, funding for food banks, eviction moratoriums, and more. (It's worth noting that these benefits did little to help undocumented Americans, of which there are millions.) The number of food insecure households—meaning homes without consistent, reliable access to enough food—doubled in April from 11 percent to an estimated 22 to 38 percent. With the stimulus programs having expired on the first of August—and the pandemic still wreaking havoc on the job market—food insecurity is expected to rise further still. In fact, the United Nations estimates that the pandemic will force 83 to 132 million people around the globe into hunger by the end of the year.

"I've been really surprised by how generous and resilient Americans are." —Glen Curado, founder and CEO, World Harvest Food Bank

As a result, food banks and other organizations have been contorting themselves to meet unprecedented demand—and make their efforts sustainable in the long run. "We have been spending about a million dollars each week to source food above and beyond what our normal efforts would be," says Stephany of the Oregon Food Bank's efforts. "We can't afford to slow down, especially looking at this cliff that we're facing where the federal government may pull the rug out from under millions and millions of people across the country."

Altfast says the Alameda food bank is "a completely different organization" than it was back in March. He describes a number of new distribution programs implemented, including drive-throughs serving 20,000 people per week, grocery distribution to families with school-age children across 12 school districts (in partnership with Stephen and Ayesha Curry's Eat Learn Play Foundation), and expanded delivery efforts for seniors and other vulnerable populations as well as those in quarantine. He estimates that the organization has increased its distribution by up to 70 percent in four months. (Similarly, Massad-Paradeis says the Houston bank expects to operate at a significantly increased capacity until at least January of 2021.)

This expansion is being accomplished despite pandemic-related constraints. "[Houston Food Bank] has had to adjust our logistics and distribution models to accommodate social distancing, encouraging our network of partners to employ different models like using appointments for people to receive food or establishing drive through distributions," Massad-Paradeis says. Meanwhile, Stephany tells me his bank has gone from 100 to 150 volunteers per shift to just 10 to 12 in order to accommodate social distancing. And Glen Curado, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based World Harvest Food Bank, says that the wholesale food distributors from whom he typically takes donations have been hit hard due to a decrease in orders from restaurants, slowing their contributions and making it harder for him to stock shelves.

Given that Congress has yet to pass any new assistance package, Altfast tells me that the folks at Alameda bank are purchasing a greater amount of food and placing orders further into the future than normal, to make sure they're covered as demand likely increases. They've also taken steps to improve efficiency, such as hiring consultants to better organize their warehouses, investing in an increased number of delivery trucks, and helping the meal kitchens and pantries with whom they partner expand capacity as well.

"I encourage folks to not just think about what we can do to meet the challenge of today head-on, but about what steps we can take to ensure that our communities emerge stronger from this crisis." —Jason Stephany, director of strategic communications, Oregon Food Bank

All of this requires funding, and each organization that I spoke to says if you want to help, the best way to do so is through monetary donations. While it may feel more satisfying to contribute hard goods (e.g. canned food) to the cause, they say that they're able to stretch a dollar much further than a consumer can. In fact, Stephany tells me that his food bank is able to fund three to 10 meals with just $1.

Stephany says it's critical you reach out to your representatives in Congress to let them know how important expanded benefits are, especially as many experts anticipate a second coronavirus wave in the fall that will further impact people's ability to afford and access food. (Not that the first wave appears to be going anywhere anytime soon.) "The Trump administration has repeatedly made attempts to make it more difficult for families across the country to access public assistance benefits," he says. "These are benefits that people are entitled to as tax-paying members of society."

If you are personally struggling with food insecurity, know that help is there for you. Stephany recommends Googling your local food bank and utilizing their resources for guidance from there. Altfast tells me that many first-timers wait too long to come to them, and that they express shame and regret when they do. But it's not your fault if you can't afford food—especially now, during a global pandemic that has destroyed the health and fortunes of millions.

In fact, Stephany notes, the current situation is in large part due to systemic failures that have long been hurting broad swaths of the population. "I encourage folks to not just think about what we can do to meet the challenge of today head-on, but about what steps we can take to ensure that our communities emerge stronger from this crisis," he says. "This pandemic eventually will be behind us and we want to be in a situation where by the time the next major challenge is in front of us, we're not facing the same circumstances that we are right now."

That said, none of those interviewed for this piece seemed disheartened or despairing, despite the overwhelming challenges of this moment. In fact, all expressed gratitude and awe for the amount of support they've received in recent months. Says Curado: "I've been really surprised by how generous and resilient Americans are."

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