Loading up at the Edmonton Food Bank. Photo by Mack Male.
If someone in your household came to you right now and said “I’m hungry,” is the solution waiting in your refrigerator or your cupboard?
I hope so. For most of us that is the case, but for a lot of others it is not. You probably know this. Many Americans who never before worried about feeding themselves have confronted bare shelves and empty coolers for months now, after the pandemic closed businesses, destroyed jobs, and isolated the elderly and vulnerable in their homes. You probably know this too.
A lot of us who are fortunate enough to have stable incomes and ample bank accounts opened our wallets to help in the early weeks of the lockdown. Then our attention shifted as the weather warmed, the lockdowns ended and most places went through various official phases of reopening. It was easy to think that we had done our duty and that the need had been met.
It hasn’t been met. In fact, it may be about to spike again.
With the virus still circulating – in many places, farther and faster than it was in the spring – vulnerable people remain stuck at home. Younger workers and business owners who just a few weeks ago rejoiced at the prospect of getting back to work are seeing earning opportunities disappear again as localities reimpose restrictions to slow the spread.
And one of the key pieces of economic relief, the $600 federally funded supplement to state unemployment benefits, is about to expire. Officially, it continues through July 31, which gives lawmakers who are returning to Washington this week a little more time to negotiate the next round of financial support. But a quirk of the law and the calendar means that for many recipients, we are already in the final week of enhanced benefits. This is because July 31 falls on a Friday, meaning the final day of that week is Saturday, the first day of August. States that use a Sunday-to-Saturday period for weekly unemployment benefits are already in the final period of eligibility for the supplement.
Even before this supplement runs out, the ongoing increase in food insecurity is obvious to those working to ease it. The Wall Street Journal reported that more than 82% of surveyed food banks in the U.S. are serving more people than they were last year. On average, that increase in volume is around 50%, though in some places it is much higher. In late June, Florida food support organizations said they had seen the demand for their services rise as much as 400% compared to the time before the pandemic. By the end of April, a quarter of Californians, about 10 million people, faced food insecurity.
While a vastly increased demand for food support continues, the needs of the food supply network have changed. COVID-19 has cut into the pool of volunteer labor, especially as retirees are forced to avoid personal contact. At the same time, social distancing has increased facilities’ need for processing and distribution space. Products delayed by transportation problems in the early weeks of the pandemic have now arrived en masse, sometimes straining storage capacity. Shelf-stable products like canned goods remain in short supply. Many food pantries – the local storefronts and warehouses where families pick up supplies – lack refrigeration or freezer space, which means they cannot stockpile perishables, assuming they can handle them at all.
Have you ever wondered about the difference between a food bank and a food pantry? A food bank is typically a large facility that gathers supplies from a wide range of sources. Food pantries and other local agencies make that food available for pickup, or deliver it to those dealing with temporary quarantine or permanent disability. The general public seldom gives it much thought, but providing food to the hungry is as much about warehousing and trucking as it is about procurement and delivery.
All these activities cost money, of course. That’s where we come in. Offering direct financial support to any of these organizations helps with the many steps involved in getting food to those who need it. If you already made a donation in support of a local or national food bank or food pantry, or a similar hunger-fighting service like Meals on Wheels, thank you. If you can give again, know that the need is still out there.
Where should you give? I can’t tell you that, because most people want to do something to help neighbors in their own communities. A quick internet search will tell you what is available. Your local government, your worship congregation or your local school district can likely offer ideas, too.
Or you could start with Feeding America, a national fundraising powerhouse that says it supports 200 food banks and some 60,000 food pantries and distribution agencies nationwide. You can donate directly to the parent organization, which raises $2.8 billion per year. Or you can give to a local food bank by searching your ZIP Code under “Find A Food Bank” on the Feeding America website.
Of course, local agencies often need volunteers as well. If you have time and energy, and are not unduly at risk when working outside your home, this is a way you can help meet the need even if your finances don’t have room for a donation.
No matter what you do or how you do it, you will be doing the right thing. Because when someone says “I’m hungry,” the only answer anyone should have to hear is “come have something to eat.”