Millions are flooding a charitable system that was never intended to handle a nationwide crisis.
In Omaha, a food pantry that typically serves as few as 100 people saw 900 show up on a single day. In Jonesboro, Ark., after a powerful tornado struck, a food bank received less than half the donations it expected because nervous families held on to what they had. And in Washington State and Louisiana, the National Guard has been called in to help pack food boxes and ensure that the distributions run smoothly.
Demand for food assistance is rising at an extraordinary rate, just as the nation’s food banks are being struck by shortages of both donated food and volunteer workers.
Uniformed guardsmen help “take the edge off” at increasingly tense distributions of boxes filled with cans of chicken noodle soup, tuna fish, and pork and beans, said Mike Manning, the chief executive at the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank. “Their presence provides safety for us during distributions.”
Mr. Manning, who has worked at the food bank for 16 years, including through Hurricane Katrina, said that he had never witnessed such a combination of need, scarcity and anxiety. “‘Crazy’ pretty much sums it up,” he said.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning research organization in Washington, D.C. She has studied food security for more than a quarter century. “People love the phrase ‘the perfect storm,’” she added, “but nothing is built for this.”
Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, with more than 200 affiliates, has projected a $1.4 billion shortfall in the next six months alone. Last week, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, announced that he was donating $100 million to the group — the largest single donation in its history, but still less than a tenth of what it needs.
The coronavirus is everywhere in America, and so is the hunger. More than a million people have viewed drone footage of a miles-long line of cars waiting for food last week along a bend in the Monongahela River leading to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
A spokeswoman for the organization, Beth Burrell, said that 800 cars were served that day. Another distribution this week drew even more.
Tini Mason, 44, was in one of those cars, making his first-ever trip to a food bank. “We have to stretch every can, every package, everything that we have, because we don’t know what’s around the corner,” he said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Mason lost his job as a cook shortly before the outbreak took hold. The career office where he had been looking for work has closed its doors, and he is still waiting for his unemployment benefits to come through. His partner, Crystal Stewart, 49, lost her job at a Residence Inn by Marriott, then briefly found work at a supermarket. But she developed a cough and was forced to isolate while awaiting the results of a swab test. (Her test has since come back negative.)
Mr. Mason described the sight of mile after mile of drivers seeking food as “an eye-opener, mind-blowing, an experience I will never forget.” He and Ms. Stewart said they honked their horn as a gesture of appreciation for volunteers, then drove home and shared eggs and fruit with neighbors who do not own cars.
“If I don’t have to worry about food, I can worry about clothes, how I’m going to pay the rent, how I’m going to pay the car note,” Ms. Stewart said.
Close to 10 million Americans reported losing their jobs in the second half of March. The true number of newly unemployed is almost certainly higher, and many have little or no buffer against the sudden loss in income. Even before the current economic crisis, the Federal Reserve found that four in 10 American adults did not have the savings or other resources to cover an unexpected $400 expense.
While Congress passed a sweeping economic recovery package last month that promised payments of up to $1,200 to most American adults, it remains unclear when the funds will arrive.
Adding to the problem, school closings across the country mean that many families who relied on free or subsidized school breakfasts and lunches to keep their children fed are facing even greater need.
At exactly the moment that more Americans find themselves turning to food charities, the charities are facing shortages of their own. They rely on a volunteer labor force, one that skews heavily toward retirees. Across the country, older volunteers are sheltering at home for their own health and safety — sometimes by choice, and sometimes at the government’s direction.
Perhaps more alarmingly, many of the organizations that typically donate large volumes of food have themselves shut down. Restaurants, hotels and casinos have closed across the country. And grocery stores, which ordinarily share unsold inventory that is approaching its best-by date, have less to donate because their worried customers have been stripping so many shelves bare.
“When Americans began stocking up on toilet paper, pasta, dried beans and anything else they could get their hands on, supermarkets no longer had that excess, nor the time, to do the kind of shelf sweeps to check what they could give,” said Janet Poppendieck, an expert on poverty and food assistance. She is also the author of “Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement.”
The result is that food banks are buying what they used to receive for nothing.
At Food Bank for the Heartland in Omaha, the amount of food donated for March dropped by nearly half. The food bank typically purchases $73,000 of food in a month this time of year but has spent $675,000 in the past four weeks.
In New York City, where more than 19 billion pounds of food are distributed under normal circumstances, and the virus poses an enormous test to the system, 49 percent of respondents to a recent Siena College poll in the city said they were concerned about being able to afford food.
Food banks are large warehouses or distribution centers that supply local storefronts known as food pantries, but also hand food directly to some individuals. They are a relatively recent feature of American life.
John van Hengel founded the nation’s first such organization, St. Mary’s Food Bank, in Phoenix in 1967, after a conversation with a woman who looked for food in dumpsters to feed her children. The concept spread around the country, and Mr. van Hengel established the national network that became Feeding America in 1979.
The food-banking sector continued to grow in the early 1980s, according to Andy Fisher, a food security expert and the author of “Big Hunger.” That was when President Ronald Reagan cut back on social-welfare programs and a recession struck.
Mr. Fisher, who was raised in Youngstown, Ohio, said that with the emergence of the Midwestern Rust Belt, churches, unions and civic associations worked to fill what they believed was a temporary need. “Nobody expected that food banks would continue to 2020,” Mr. Fisher said. “They grew, they expanded, they institutionalized.”
Food banks are distinct from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps,” which helps recipients purchase their own groceries. Roughly 40 million people rely on the program, though a recent Trump Administration rule change was expected to push 700,000 people from the rolls before the coronavirus crisis began.
By Feeding America’s own estimates, SNAP dwarfs food banks as a source of sustenance for needy Americans, providing nine meals for every one from its nationwide food-bank network. But the sudden surge of demand has outstripped SNAP’s ability to process new applications.
“It’s a highly flexible system, but it is not a system designed to absorb 10 million people in one month,” Ms. Dean said.
The number of people who needed help putting food on the table rose dramatically during the Great Recession. More than 50 million Americans were food insecure by 2009, according to the Department of Agriculture, but the numbers had improved significantly as the unemployment rate declined in recent years, falling to 37 million by 2018.
The most challenging events often come in the wake of natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes or wildfires. But those affect a particular region, and food banks in other parts of the country can step up with immediate aid from their inventory. The latest crisis, with layoffs soaring everywhere simultaneously, will probably test the nation’s food banks like none before.
Christina Wong, director of public policy and advocacy at Northwest Harvest, an independent food bank in Seattle, said that the group was using up the food in its warehouse, down to what it had secured during a holiday food drive. The food bank’s bulk purchasing operation, used to paying 25 cents on the dollar, is having to compete on the open market with grocery stores and is starting to have to pay full cost.
Her group estimated that Washington State had gone from 800,000 people struggling to put food on the table to 1.6 million since the outbreak began. Before the crisis, Northwest Harvest had tried to create a dignified experience for clients, as close as possible to shopping at a conventional grocery store, with an emphasis on fresh, local food.
“We’ve reverted to handing out a box of food,” Ms. Wong said, with macaroni and cheese, canned chicken and peanut butter in a typical container.
Based in Las Vegas, Three Square Food Bank previously distributed food through 180 pantries across Clark County. Since the outbreak — and the sudden closing of nearly all of the city’s gambling and tourism attractions — the organization has restructured, with 10 pantries and 21 new drive-through distribution sites.
Larry Scott, Three Square’s chief operating officer, said that the group had expected 200 to 250 cars a day at each drive-through. They’re getting up to 500 to 600 cars instead, with lines up to four miles long. “Every day, we distribute everything that we bring to a site,” Mr. Scott said.
An initial glut of high-quality food from shuttered casinos is basically gone, Mr. Scott said. Now his food bank is burning through an extra $300,000 to $400,000 a week in cash to buy food.
He said that he saw no relief in sight. “What we do today has to be repeated again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day,” Mr. Scott said. “Hungry people are hungry each and every day.”
Ericka Smrcka, an official at Food Bank for the Heartland in Nebraska, went to a recent mobile food distribution at a middle school in neighboring Council Bluffs, Iowa. She and a colleague arrived nearly an hour before it was scheduled to start to find the streets jammed in every direction and the police directing traffic.
“We were overwhelmed with tears,” Ms. Smrcka said. “Oh, my gosh. Everywhere we looked, there were just cars.”
The delivery truck had enough boxes of food — produce, bread and milk — for 200 vehicles. Some 400 showed up. Ms. Smrcka recalled feeling apprehensive at the prospect of walking car to car with nothing more than a flier describing alternative resources, thinking she might get yelled at.
But that’s not what happened. “After sitting in their car for an hour and not receiving any food, they still said thank you,” she said, recalling in particular a father who had left work early and picked up his three daughters, and who departed empty-handed.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How does coronavirus spread?
It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
What makes this outbreak so different?
Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
What if somebody in my family gets sick?
If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
Should I stock up on groceries?
Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
Should I pull my money from the markets?
That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
What should I do with my 401(k)?
Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”