Food banks are adapting to doing business amid the COVID-19 pandemic in order to get food where it’s needed, but are also warning lawmakers and government agencies that they will require much more help in the days and weeks ahead.

Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization with 200 member food banks, told House and Senate leaders in a letter Tuesday that $600 million allocated in coronavirus aid bills for food purchases and $250 million for distribution will not be enough. The group is calling for an additional $500 million for food purchases and $500 million for distribution and storage.

“We remain concerned about our ability to identify enough resources to offset the increased food needs and distribution challenges, despite the incredible generosity of individuals and companies,” Kate Leone, the group’s chief government relations officer, said in the letter, which also calls for an expansion of eligibility and increased benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Based on a survey at the end of March, Feeding America estimates costs will increase 30% over the next six months and could result in a jump of 17 million people, or 46%, experiencing food insecurity.

Food banks told Feeding America that they were seeing an average 60% increase in need for food assistance, and Carrie Calvert, the organization’s Managing Director of Government Relations, says the number of food banks “reporting they urgently need food” is only expected to increase. One in five food banks told Feeding America they’re worried about running out of food in the next two to four weeks, and 45 percent said they will distribute all their food under USDA’s  Emergency Food Assistance Program in the next four weeks.

The food banks, Leone said, “are struggling to find shelf stable food to purchase for immediate food distribution as the supply chain adjusts” and less food is available from groceries and other retail outlets.

USDA says half the $600 million allocated in two congressional aid bills has made its way to the states, and the department is working quickly to allocate the rest.

In many cases, food banks report holdups in getting food to people because they normally have to collect employment and income information to determine eligibility. Other problems include a shortage of volunteers and the need for more deliveries to people who can’t make it to the facility because they’re in quarantine or have a disability.

Marilyn Tomasi

Marilyn Tomasi

“In areas where there is significant economic impact and you have people waiting five  hours in line for a food distribution, we can’t sign new people up to receive food through [USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)] fast enough, even if we are utilizing no contact methods such as pre-registering with a volunteer over the phone,” Calvert says.

Marilyn Tomasi, spokesperson for the Mid-Ohio Food Collective, which distributes food to 650 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, after-school programs, and senior housing sites across central and eastern Ohio, says her group had been allowing customers “to self-declare that they are in need of food,” but on Tuesday the state received permission from USDA for a Disaster Household Distribution Program that should streamline delivery.

USDA has given six states and seven tribes permission to operate the disaster programs.

“Income and residency verification is not required for disaster household distributions, which are temporary in nature, and targeted to those areas with high need and food supply disruptions,” a spokesperson for USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service said. 

Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, said in a press release that it took “weeks of bureaucratic haggling and red tape” for the Ohio National Guard and Ohio Military Reserve, who have been helping to distribute food, to get permission to run the program.

Tomasi says Gov. Mike DeWine’s decision to deploy 100 National Guard personnel has helped in preparation, packing of, and delivery and distribution of food, meals and groceries. 

Paul Donnelly, spokesman for the Food Bank of Larimer County, Colorado, says their biggest challenge right now is switching over from letting clients choose the foods they want at food pantries, to prepackaging food.

“We have had to completely reconfigure how we get food out to clients,” he said. “The drive-up model is working from a social distancing perspective, but the staff and volunteer time needed to prepackage food has been a major challenge,” forcing the food bank to reduce distribution days and hours.

In addition, “Although we are not set up for home deliveries, we are working with staff and volunteers to do weekly home deliveries for those seniors and other immune-compromised Individuals who cannot or do not feel safe leaving their home for food,” Donnelly said.

“As with all COVID-19 processes, we are learning all the time and our processes are improving,” he said.

The lines of people seeking emergency food are indicative of the demand, but Tomasi says there’s still a stigma to asking for help.  

“Given the lay-offs in the hospitality industry, we are seeing many people in our community coming to the food pantry for the first time,” she says. “We are emphasizing that there is no judgement, no shame in getting help, especially when they are left with no income.”

In South Florida, where millions of pounds of fresh produce are being plowed under, growers have had some success in selling directly to customers on their farms, and Feeding Florida, the state’s network of food banks, has been trying to secure funding to reimburse growers for the cost of workers to harvest and pack the crops to get them to food banks, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association spokesperson Lisa Lochridge said.

The problem, she said, is that retail demand has fallen off and the foodservice market has dried up.

“It’s my understanding that the food banks in South Florida can’t take any more produce, although they are struggling to get it distributed for a whole host of reasons, including a drop in volunteers,” she said.

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“There is still product to be consumed,” she said. “We just have to get it out into the supply chain … but time is of the essence.”

Feeding America's Calvert confirmed that although food banks are still distributing produce that can be donated in household size packaging, a combination of agency closures, fewer volunteers, and the need for additional refrigeration capacity is making it hard to take additional bulk size produce donations. The group is backing efforts by the American Farm Bureau Federation and other commodity groups to support USDA purchases of consumer-ready produce for donation to food banks.

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