Why Food Banks Are So Overwhelmed Right Now

Church volunteers set up a drive-thru food pantry in Sherman, Texas. Sara Carpenter/Shutterstock

The waste is almost impossible to fathom. Mounds of produce rot in fields because farmers aren't able to transport it to market. Thousands of gallons of milk are dumped because there's no way to get it to consumers. Yet, so many food banks are struggling to stock their shelves as newly unemployed Americans are reaching out for assistance.

There's frustration that food is being wasted in one place while there's so much need for it in another.

Like so many businesses and organizations, food banks and pantries across the country have been hit hard in several ways by the coronavirus pandemic.

"I've never seen anything like it," 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., told The New York Times. "People love the phrase 'the perfect storm' but nothing is built for this."

There's more need

National Guardsman Daniel Rasik stocks shelves at Toledo Northwestern Ohio Food Bank
SSG Daniel Rasik, assigned to the Ohio National Guard's HHC 1-148th Infantry Regiment, stocks shelves at the Toledo Northwestern Ohio Food Bank in March. Hundreds of Ohio National Guard members have been activated to help those in need. Senior Master Sgt. Beth Holliker, The National Guard [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Feeding America is the country's largest network of food support with more than 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs throughout the nation. (A food bank is a nonprofit warehouse operation that collects and stores donated food that will be delivered to local food programs like food pantries. Food pantries are the distribution centers where families receive their food.)

In a typical year, one in seven Americans turns to the organization's network of food banks, according to the organization. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis in March, 98% of food banks have reported an increased demand for food assistance.

"Last year USDA reported that 37 million people face hunger in America and the Feeding America network of food banks distributed 4.2 billion meals," said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, in a statement. "This year, the COVID-19 crisis is driving more of our neighbors into food insecurity and putting a strain on food banks to provide more meals. Never has the charitable food system faced such tremendous challenge, and we need all the resources we can get to help our neighbors during this terrible time."

Since creating the COVID-19 Response Fund on March 13, Feeding America has distributed $112.4 million and more than 94 million pounds of food to food banks throughout its network. The organization has helped provide nearly 79 million meals to people in need.

In early April, the organization announced that it would need $1.4 billion in additional resources over the next six months to continue to provide food throughout the U.S. That's a 30% increase from baseline operating costs.

There are plans in place to help get the extra food to those who need it.

Publix supermarkets announced in late April that it will buy fresh produce and milk from Florida produce farmers and southeastern dairy farmers impacted by the pandemic and donate it directly to Feeding America food banks in its member area. More than 150,000 pounds of produce and 43,500 gallons of milk were expected to be donated during the first week of the initiative, which is scheduled to run for several weeks. In early May, Kroger launched a similar initiative, according to Food Navigator-USA. The grocer will purchase about 200,000 gallons of excess milk and redirect it to Feeding America.

In mid-April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled a $19 billion food assistance program with $3 billion allocated to buy fresh produce, dairy, and meat, which would be sent to food banks and other nonprofits across the country. However Politico says it will take nearly a month before food can be packed and shipped. That's a long time for farmers and food banks to wait.

There's less food

workers distribute food at a pantry in Illinois
Volunteers distribute items at a food pantry in Illinois. Demand has spiked since March, but food donations have dropped. Scott Olson/Getty Images

With the economic crisis we're facing, fewer people are donating food and funds to keep pantries full. According to Feeding America, 59% of its food banks report having less inventory to share with those who request help.

Some people might not be donating because they're worried about depleting their own finances. Others are keeping their canned goods because they're afraid they'll need them.

"There's another population that needs to be able to hunker down for the possibility in case they are quarantined," Kate Lombardo with the Food Bank of Lower Fairfield County in Stamford, Connecticut, told CNN. "Most people don't have that extra $100 to $200 to spend on food to ready their household for two weeks' worth of groceries."

Typically, the shelves are always full of items like pasta, spaghetti sauce, and cereal, she said. But now, even those staples are hard to find. Instead, the food bank has had to rely on donations to buy the food to keep their pantries full.

"It's just frightening for people who live hand to mouth on a daily basis," Lombardo said. "There's already a stress factor of poverty, let alone the additional stress coming from a pandemic."

There are fewer volunteers

sign on a food pantry in Glendale Heights, Illinois
Volunteers at a food pantry in Glendale Heights, Illinois, says they've had 10 times the demand for food since the pandemic started. Some people who used to donate are now coming in for donations. Scott Olson/Getty Images

In addition to having less food, pantries also have fewer volunteers. Many organizations rely on college students, retired people, and business groups to help distribute donations. But with colleges and many businesses closed, those volunteer groups aren't available. And people over 60 are considered high risk for contracting the virus, so older volunteers often stay home and aren't able to help.

Katie Fitzgerald, the chief operating officer for Feeding America, told NPR that the number of volunteers showing up in recent weeks has dropped by 60%. The organization reports that more than two-thirds of its food banks are in need of volunteers.

Some states are turning to the National Guard to fill the void. Others are calling on AmeriCorps, a national service program, for assistance. Some members are working in schools that have been shut down, helping to distribute food. Some are operating call centers, providing virtual aid where they can, according to NPR.

How you can help food banks

Cars line up for free groceries from a food bank in Inglewood, California
Cars line up for free groceries from a food bank in Inglewood, California, in early April. Mario Tama/Getty Images

If you have the extra funds or time right now, check in with your local food bank to see what they need. You can search by ZIP code or by state on Feeding America's directory to find your local food bank. You also may be able to find local pantries and soup kitchens at FoodPantries.org, a curated list that isn't affiliated with any group.

All of them will be happy to accept monetary donations and nearly all will accept many kinds of food donations. The San Antonio Food Bank offers a list of the 12 most-wanted items that include peanut butter, beans, rice, and cereal.

Check your local food bank or pantry's website to see what else they need. They might need volunteers to sort and pack food boxes or to help make phone calls for donations. Now during the pandemic, many pantries are holding mobile no-contact distribution, but they still need help setting up the food and raising awareness.

For example, Three Square Food Bank in Las Vegas now has 21 drive-thru distribution sites with 500 to 600 cars coming through each day. Lines are up to four miles long as volunteers distribute all the food they have.

"Every day, we distribute everything that we bring to a site," Larry Scott, Three Square's chief operating officer, told The New York Times. "What we do today has to be repeated again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day. Hungry people are hungry each and every day."