Over the last few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much of our everyday lives – how we interact, how we shop, how we work. In some cases, those changes are relatively small: we wear masks when we go out, we work from home if we can, we trade in-person family gatherings for virtual game nights. But for food banks, pantries, meal programs and the people who visit them , the pandemic has meant a tremendous shift in not only the need, but how those programs are operating.
COVID-19 has created a “new normal” that is likely here to stay.
Before the pandemic, Feeding America and its network of 200 food banks served 40 million people. As the virus continues, we estimate that 17.1 million additional people could find themselves without enough food. Many of our neighbors who were employed before the pandemic now find themselves laid off or having reduced hours. Often, that means hard-working people who are doing everything right will need a little extra help feeding themselves and their families. And that’s where food banks step in – to fill the gap during the pandemic and beyond.
An elevated need across the country
Communities large and small are feeling the impact of coronavirus. In North Dakota, a state where hunger wasn’t a common experience for many families before COVID, the Great Plains Food Bank has seen a significant uptick in people visiting pantries.
“Within the first two weeks of the pandemic, our pantries and soup kitchens saw anywhere between a 30 to 60 percent increase in the number of people visiting,” said Melissa Sobolik, president of Great Plains Food Bank, the only Feeding America food bank serving North Dakota.
Melissa said the food bank has also seen an increase of more than 50 percent in attendance at its rural drive-thru food pantries, which serve fresh produce and shelf-stable groceries to people in communities that might not have a full grocery store or enough volunteers or space for a traditional food pantry. And in a lot of cases the people who are visiting pantries are new.
“We’ve heard that there are so many people coming for the first time,” she said. “They’re families who never needed the help, who could always afford food, but now they need it.”
Across the entire Feeding America network, food banks are seeing more new faces than ever before. Roughly 2 in every 5 people visiting a food bank are seeking help for the first time, as those who previously had a stable income are suddenly unable to put food on the table because of a job loss or a reduction of hours.
Meanwhile, for states who already had a high level of need before the pandemic, the situation is even worse.
In New Mexico, where 1 in every 6 people need food assistance, the Roadrunner Food Bank serves many low-income working families. For families already struggling with hunger, the pandemic can be devastating.
“For people who are already food insecure, COVID is making life especially difficult,” said Sonya Warwick, Roadrunner Food Bank’s communications officer.
The food bank opened drive-thru mobile pantries in the hardest-hit communities, which include areas that have seen large pantries close because of the pandemic, as many pantries are volunteer-run and can’t function as their normal staff stays at home. And Roadrunner doesn’t anticipate the need going away anytime soon.
“What that means is for a state with high hunger and poverty rates, even when everything is re-opened, we will continue to see long food lines across the state. We’re anticipating that this level of elevated need is going to be the new normal for a while now.”
For families struggling with hunger, the “new normal” means added stress and anxiety. On top of working with their kids on e-learning, parents who have lost jobs are now also contending with the reality of empty cupboards – something they’ve never had to deal with before.
And for many, that means adding weekly or monthly visits to local food pantries to their schedule.
“I’ve never needed food assistance before COVID-19,” said Norma, a mom in New Mexico who lost her job as a hairstylist. “But my kids love opening the boxes of food. The food bank has been super helpful.”
The new normal also means families having tough choices they didn’t face before. Without an income, or with a reduced income, many people are choosing between groceries and bills. Or food and paying their rent or mortgage.
The ‘new normal’ for food banks
For food banks, the ‘new normal’ means finding different ways to get food to the people who need it while looking for new sources of food and volunteers. At Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, produce donations have been slim since the pandemic. The food bank recently started a partnership with a local hydroponic farm and Cassie Faulks, the community impact manager, is picking up lettuce donations from the farm weekly and delivering it directly to a pantry.
“We’re doing what we need to do to get food into the community right now,” she said.
Meanwhile, in North Dakota, elders at Native American reservations are unable to leave their homes because tribes have issued a total travel ban, said Melissa. To fill the gap, Great Plains Food Bank is adding food distributions in the area.
“Some reservations have a convenience store but not an actual grocery store,” she said. “There’s not much access to food.”
But there is hope. While the need is greater than ever before, we are stronger together.
“It’s amazing to see communities coming together right now to help people,” said Cassie from Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin. “It’s such a bright part of this tough time.”
Want to help your local food bank during the pandemic? Check out some easy ways to make an impact, learn more about Feeding America’s response to COVID-19 or donate to our Response Fund right now.