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Food banks, pantries, and hunger relief providers across the country say they’re seeing an unprecedented surge in demand for meals — sometimes double their typical amount of clientele — as the coronavirus pandemic pushes more people into poverty.
From Silicon Valley to Chicago and New York City, organizations serving the poor told VICE News they’re seeing a staggering amount of people in need — some of them entirely new to hunger relief programs. Just last week, 3.28 million people filed for unemployment insurance after losing their jobs as broad “stay-at-home” orders closed much of the country’s nonessential businesses.
At one food bank in Silicon Valley, phone calls for information about where to get food or how to sign up for government benefits grew from fewer than 200 a day to more than 1,000 in the span of two weeks. Food pantries, on the other hand, say they’re bleeding volunteers while having to serve larger-than-usual crowds.
“That was the closest thing I’ve ever felt in America to the desperation I have felt in the developing world.”
“I’ve been doing this work on food insecurity and food banking for more than 20 years. I was doing this work during 2008. While there we saw a tremendous increase in need, it happened over time,” said Leslie Bacho the chief executive officer of Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, one of the largest food banks in the nation. “In this case it’s like a single moment, having so many people out of work, having their hours cut back — so many people have suddenly been launched into this tremendous need. It’s more like facing this sudden tsunami.”
“That’s what’s so frightening to all of us,” she added.
Food banks like Bacho’s often operate like massive warehouses that store and collect the food that later gets distributed to nonprofit organizations and sites of need, like churches, schools, shelters, soup kitchens, and pantries. Food pantries, on the other hand, operate like little grocery stores, farmer’s markets or distribution lines. Many of those have shut down over the virus or transitioned to drive-thrus with pre-packaged boxes of food.
The sites that remain open in the Silicon Valley region — and Second Harvest distributes to nearly 1,000 points across two counties — have seen 50% to 100% increases in demand, according to Bacho.
Volunteers are also pulling out of their typical shifts left and right to keep themselves safe, or because they need to care for the ill. Last week, Second Harvest even brought in the California National Guard to help pick up the slack, according to Bacho. Several organizations VICE News spoke to said they were dealing with a similar drop in staff.
In New York City — the nation’s epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic — Josiah Haken, vice president of outreach for New York City Relief, a non-profit aiding the city’s homeless, said he’s also seeing record-breaking demand for his services. The organization has gone from serving 48 gallons of soup to 110 gallons of soup in the past three weeks, especially since other non-profits in the city are reducing their services and scaling back hours to protect staff.
Last week, Haken was passing gallons of hot soup and baked goods to poor, homeless people in the city’s tony Chelsea neighborhood when, after two hours, he had to shut down. People were still reaching past him for the remaining crumbs of baked goods.
“I grew up in West Africa, my parents were missionaries in Cameroon. I’ve seen developing world poverty,” Haken said. “That was the closest thing I’ve ever felt in America to the desperation I have felt in the developing world.”
Across the country in Boise, St. Vincent de Paul Southwest Idaho’s food pantries, the region’s largest, have seen their clientele double. Just as troublesome, about 40% of the people coming to pick up food are new to his care, according to Ralph May, the organization’s executive director.
His services rely on its thrift stores, which are currently shut down, for income. So he’s also worried about his own organization’s impending financial difficulties, should he have to continue spending on an increasing level of services.
“Our country wasn’t totally prepared for this, and I’m not sure we could afford to be totally prepared for every potential disaster or challenge,” May said. “But the sheer, radical change in life that’s happened over the last month is shocking.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the nation’s safety net had been showing troublesome signs of wear. Homelessness has been on the incline in recent years, with 550,000-plus people living on the streets or in shelters. Last year, the Federal Reserve reported that a quarter of Americans wouldn’t be able to stomach a sudden $400 expense without selling something or borrowing money. More than half of all Americans lack an emergency savings account.
“This has maybe shown just how fragile our nation is, it’s only been two weeks really and we already have people who can’t make it,” said Josh Greene, the lead pastor at First Baptist Church Fairdale, near Louisville. His food pantry, which normally serves about 50 families per week, has doubled the amount of households it’s serving.
“It only took two weeks,” he added.
At The Ark — a massive social services agency, shelter, and food pantry that serves 4,000 people in Chicagoland’s Jewish community each year — twice as many people are coming through the food pantry, and it’s operating with fewer volunteers. Executive director Marc Swatez said local foundations and businesses have graciously stepped up to rush his organization the cash they need right now.
“People are really scared, and the people who were already vulnerable coming into this crisis are even more vulnerable during it, and they’re going to continue to be vulnerable after it,” Swatez said. “That just keeps compounding on itself.”
Cover: Members of the California National Guard Joint Task Force 115 help pack boxes of food at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley on March 25, 2020 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Yichuan Cao/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)