After a difficult 2020, food banks expect no reprieve in new year
Update: On Tuesday, Jan. 4, the USDA announced a $1.5 billion extension of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which had provided $4.5 billion in food to food banks across the nation in 2020.
As the year begins, Kyle Waide, president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, must prepare for the worst case scenario in 2021. For his food bank, which serves 29 counties in the Atlanta metro area, that would be another year of food insecurity at the level seen in 2020, when they distributed 70% more food than average.
“We are expecting that to be the status quo for a while,” he said.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, food banks across America saw a nearly 60% increase in demand for their services, according to Feeding America. Several federal programs helped food banks meet that need. The USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program was the largest program, providing $4.5 billion in food. While the program was criticized for its cost and at times the quality of the food it supplied, it was essential to food banks during the pandemic. The Farmers to Families Food Box Program, however, ended on Dec. 31.
Feeding the Gulf Coast, which serves the coastal regions of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, distributed 36 million pounds of food in 2020. The Farmers to Families Food Box Program provided 4.3 million pounds of that food.
The extra federal help was particularly welcome at the start of the pandemic. Food banks generally receive significant donations from grocery stores unloading excess inventory. When store shelves went bare due to panic buying and distribution issues, food banks received fewer donations from grocers.
“We started early on to find ways to get more food,” said Kyle Schoolar, Feeding the Gulf Coast’s community engagement and advocacy manager. “I think as the shock of COVID has reduced, all of us are learning to diversify our food sources.”
The dynamics of the pandemic did provide advantages some food banks. When restaurants shut down to stop the spread of the spread of COVID-19, food distributors donated high-quality ingredients that now had no market.
“They had wonderful produce and meat, stuff we could never afford,” said Rachael Ellis, director of development for Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee.
In a normal year, the Knoxville-based organization distributes about 21 million pounds of food across 18 counties. In 2020, that number jumped by 3 million pounds.
“Lots of jobs were lost very quickly. We had a huge spike,” Ellis said. “The spike hasn’t dropped.”
Ellis does not expect the demand at food banks to decrease for six to nine months. Even before the pandemic, her region of Tennessee had high rates of food insecurity.
“Hunger existed before COVID. Just because COVID numbers drop, it doesn’t mean that people won’t still be in need,” she said.
At the end of 2020, congress approved additional COVID relief, which included an extra $400 million for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) that supports food banks across the country.
“If we are lucky, we might get a couple of million pounds of food out of that,” Ellis said. “We welcome it with open arms, but it’s just a drop in the bucket.”
The relief bill also includes a 15% increase to the benefits provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for six months. For a family of four, that could be an additional $100 a month for food.
“That’s a gallon of milk, a couple of dozen eggs, some bread, some produce. It can add to the food basket in a meaningful way for a family,” said Waide of Atlanta Community Food Bank.
The last year has been a difficult one for food banks and their volunteers. They were forced to meet the growing need for their services while dealing with the dangers and strains of the coronavirus pandemic. The new year may be no easier, with rates of food insecurity still high and likely fewer federal resources to help.
“When people are counting on you for food they don’t have, that’s a lot of pressure on your team,” Waide said. “At the same time, the food banks around the country and the volunteers and donors who support us are in it for the long haul. This is why we’re here. We’re inspired.”
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