At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, cars lined up for miles and miles as people waited to receive a basket of food to get them through the next week. For millions of Americans, this was a first. In 2020, one in every five people had to turn to the charitable food segment for help. The loss of jobs and the suffering economy caused more than three million Americans to experience food insecurity for the first time in their lives. “COVID created what we like to call the perfect storm for the charitable food system. We saw immediate disruption in the supply chain, there was an immediate need for help in our neighbors who were facing food insecurity, and there were shifts to how we distributed food due to safety protocols. And we are still facing all of those challenges,” says Casey Marsh, Chief Development Officer for Feeding America.
“During the pandemic, a lot of people came to us who probably never thought they’d need food assistance. We were seeing previous volunteers or donors in line for an emergency kit of food,” says David May, director of marketing and communications for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. Pre-pandemic, May estimates that they reached around 300,000 people across their three locations; now, he says that number is closer to 900,000, which is nearly 10 percent of the population in LA county.
At Lakeview Pantry in Chicago, Chief Executive Officer Kellie O’Connell says they saw a 400 percent increase in visits and three times the amount of families with children in need, compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
In the Bronx, New York, food insecurity rates were at 16.4 percent compared to the rest of the city, which was at 12 percent. During the pandemic, food insecurity rates rose by 36 percent across New York City, but it increased by 58 percent in Queens, where neighborhoods like Elmhurst and Jackson Heights also had some of the highest numbers of cases of coronavirus.
What Does Food Insecurity Mean?
In order to understand how food insecurity impacts Americans amid new supply chain backups and labor shortages, we need to understand what food insecurity is. “Imagine you are a parent faced with making the difficult decision between paying rent, paying an unexpected medical bill, and purchasing groceries. That is, unfortunately, a decision that individuals and families are making again and again,” says Marsh. Food insecurity, which is the lack of consistent access to healthy and nutritious food, can be a chronic, ongoing challenge, or it can be episodic. “Food insecurity exists in every single county, parish, and community across the country. Whether you think of it as an urban or rural issue, it is not just relegated to one area,” says Marsh.
Black, Latino, Native American, and Alaskan Native households are significantly more likely to experience food insecurity, says Marsh. Black people are 3.2 times more likely to experience food insecurity; Native Americans about 3 times more likely; and Latinos are 2.5 times more likely to experience food insecurity. “That’s something that as a network and a country we need to examine really carefully,” she says.
At Lakeview Pantry and Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, clients were once able to walk through the centers and hand pick what items they needed, as if they were grocery shopping. But like everything else, COVID changed that. Both organizations prepared emergency food boxes that people could grab in a quick, contact-free manner. At Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, clients received three boxes: one with shelf-stable items like macaroni and cheese, rice, canned vegetables, and beans, plus non-food grocery items like hand sanitizer and masks; a second box contained perishable protein items like milk, cheese, eggs, and meat; and a third was filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. In Chicago, Lakeview Pantry used Wrigley Field as a center for handing out food to thousands of residents in need of assistance.
Now, supply chain shortages threaten food assistance programs once again. “With Thanksgiving coming up, we want everyone to have a turkey or holiday protein for their table,” says O’Connell. But halts in the supply chain are causing the price of turkey, ham, roast beef, and other specialty meats to skyrocket. Plus, the rising cost of gas will cause transportation costs to go up for food pantries, making it challenging for volunteers to safely and efficiently deliver food to those in need.
School districts are also feeling the effects of the current shortages. “Schools are the place where many kids get their greatest amount of nutrition every day and for them to have to deal with this added crisis of the supply chains is really taxing for them. Now, they are dealing with, not only the limited food supply, but a shortage of cardboard trays, straws, napkins, and spork,” says Pamela Taylor, chief communications and marketing officer at No Kid Hungry. She adds that teachers are running to big-box retailers on short notice to buy a 500-pack of plastic utensils, canned fruit, and frozen pizzas just to make sure that students receive a proper meal during the school day.
What to Donate
So how can the public help? If you want to donate food to a local pantry, stick to non-perishable items that are shelf-stable and easy to transport. As a general rule of thumb, don’t donate anything that is dented, expired, or has gone bad. If you wouldn’t put it on your own table, don’t expect someone else to want to put it on theirs, particularly if it’s a concern of food safety. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, consider donating food items like canned gravy, elbow macaroni, instant mashed potatoes, and canned cranberry sauce.
While many people may assume that the best way to help local food banks is by dropping off a bag or two of nonperishable food items, financial donations can make an even bigger difference. Money donated to food banks like Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and Lakeview Pantry goes towards the frontlines of hunger relief, including offsetting the costs of refrigeration, fuel for trucks, paying any full-time staffers, and purchasing perishable food items at a lower wholesale price. Since March 2020, No Kid Hungry has given nearly $100 million in emergency grants to school districts all across the country to pay for transportation costs, coolers and heaters for food, and PPE for staff so that food could safely be prepared and served to kids at home, rather than in the cafeteria.
The best part is, it doesn’t take much. At City Harvest in New York City, a $1 donation will feed two people. At No Kid Hungry, a $50 dollar donation can provide up to 500 meals for children across the country. Every dollar you give to Feeding America can provide at least 10 meals to families in need. And $1 donated to Lakeview Pantry will provide up to eight meals, plus free social and mental health services.
And if you or someone you know is experiencing food insecurity, know that help is available right in your community. O’Connell says it’s common for anyone experiencing hunger to have feelings of shame, anxiety, and stress. “I would really encourage people to come in and know that there are resources to help you,” she adds.
Even though the worst of the pandemic may be behind us, the heroes on the frontlines of hunger relief say that food insecurity is still very real.