A review by the Associated Press of bulk distribution numbers from hundreds food banks across the nation revealed a clear decline in food being distributed across the country. This trend began in spring when the COVID-19 vaccination rollout was completed and many closed sectors of the economy reopened.
"It's fallen, but it's still high," Katie Fitzgerald, the COO of Feeding America said. Feeding America is a non-profit organization that coordinates efforts of over 200 food banks across the nation and provided the AP with national distribution numbers. She said that, despite recent declines in food distributions by FeedingAmerica's partner food banks, they still distribute more than 55% of the food at pre-pandemic levels. She said that food insecurity could rise again if too many shoes fall.
These potential setbacks include the emergence of the coronavirus delta, which has delayed the return of millions of employees to the office. It could also threaten school closures as the country enters the flu season. Another obstacle is the gradual expiration a number of COVID-19-specific protections, such as the eviction ban and expanded unemployment benefits.
Families facing food insecurity are still dependent on outside assistance, and therefore vulnerable to unforeseeable difficulties.
Carmen Cumberland, President of Community Harvest Food Bank, Fort Wayne, Indiana, stated that "there are people going back work, but it is slow going, and God forbid you should have to need a car repair or anything."
Nationally, Feeding America's food banks saw a 31% increase of food distribution in the first quarter 2021, compared to the first quarter 2020. This was just before the pandemic hit America.
The impact of the March 2020 nationwide school and office closures was immediately felt. In the first quarter of 2020, Feeding America-affiliated food bank distributed 1.1 billion lbs of food. The number increased 42% to over 1.6 billion lbs in the second quarter. The increase in food distributions was only 5%, with the third quarter seeing nearly 1.7 billion kilos of food. Recent data suggest that distributions have declined slightly from the last quarter of 2020 to the first of 2021. However, they are still declining.
The experiences of food banks all over the country mirror the national data. The Alameda county community food bank in Oakland, California noticed a spike in community needs in winter and spring this year. The organization distributed 5 million pounds of food in February 2021. This record was only for one month, as 6 million pounds were distributed in March 2021.
The numbers began to fall steadily after the March peak -- dropping to 4.6 millions pounds in August 2021. However, this is still an improvement on the 2.7 million pounds recorded in June 2019.
Michael Altfest, director of community engagement at the food bank, stated that "the recovery is going to take very, very long" for families that are reliant on food banks. Altfest stated that the coronavirus outbreak was another trauma for families already struggling with food insecurity. It also introduced a new group of clients who had never used food banks but were pushed to the edge by the pandemic. Both of these groups are expected to continue to require assistance well into next.
Altfest stated that "Things aren't getting any easier here for low and moderate-income households, but we don't think it will for a while."
Ranada James is one of those newcomers to food banks. Ranada James, a 47-year old child care professional, had previously received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (or SNAP) benefits but had never used a food bank prior to the pandemic. James was among a handful of people who lined up to get food from The Arc's weekly drive-thru pantry in southeast Washington, D.C. on a cloudy Wednesday. This is the most vulnerable and virus-ravaged area of the city. Volunteers filled her car with hot meals, lunch bags, fresh vegetables from The Arc’s garden, and sealed boxes of durable goods.
She said, "I never imagined I would need it." It helped tremendously and still helps.
James is still in dire need even though the situation is improving. Two of her grandchildren and two nieces live with her. She keeps them away from school because of fears of the pandemic, which makes it impossible for her to return to work.
She laughed and said that "they really do eat," adding that fresh string beans and broccoli were family favorites. They're pickingy and growing.
Similar trends are being reported by other food banks in the country: a gradual decline this year starting around April but still much higher than pre-pandemic levels. The Central California Food Bank
She said that "many people are still out-of-work, especially women who are the primary caregivers in their home."
The Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., reported that the July 2021 distribution of food was 64% more than the December 2019 month.
Radha Muthiah, president of the food bank, stated that COVID is not over. "We still see existing need."
It is not clear how long this high level of need will continue. However, the most conservative estimates predict it will last until next summer. Some predict that the country's food banks will never recover to their normal levels.
A pandemic-fueled rise in use of SNAP benefits, a parallel government food assistance program, was also seen. According to the Department of Agriculture, SNAP's administrator, 7 million more people used SNAP between 2019 and 2021. In August, President Joe Biden announced a 25% permanent increase in SNAP benefits. It began this month.
The SNAP program is not enough to cover every family in crisis. Muthiah stated that many clients who rely on food banks to get their nutrition are either not eligible for SNAP benefits or intimidated by bureaucratic paperwork. Some even fear applying because of their immigration status. Food banks are the only source of assistance for millions of hungry people.
Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, told the AP that SNAP benefits were available to 14% of Americans at the height of the pandemic. He said that although this number has fallen to 8%, the need is still very high. Nonprofit charitable options such as food banks play a crucial role in covering the gaps in families' budgets.
"We need to understand the impact of this pandemic on what was likely a very fragile system to start with," Vilsack said. He also held the same Cabinet position under President Barack Obama. It has revealed the fragility of our system, making programs such as SNAP, summer feeding programs, school-feeding programs, and food bank assistance even more crucial.
Vilsack stated that the Biden administration is working to strengthen the national foodbank infrastructure. In June, the Biden administration allocated $1 billion to fund refrigerated trucks. Warehouses will be used to allow food banks to store more fresh produce, vegetables, and dairy products.
The country's food banks are now busy projecting the level of future need, taking into account multiple factors -- both positive and negative. The boosted Child Tax Credit payments, which began in July, were supposed to ease the monthly burden of lower-income families and middle-class families. They provide money that can be used as the family sees fit. However, food bank experts and researchers estimate that it may take six to twelve months for food security to be realized as families first use the funds for rent or car repairs.
The end of the nationwide moratorium on evictions is a significant pressure point that could lead to families in crisis.
Congress did not extend the federal moratorium that was allowed to expire by the Biden administration in August. The federal government is now focused on funding rental assistance programs, while the national moratorium has become a patchwork, with localized moratoriums in Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York, all expiring at different times.
Volunteers at the drive-thru food pantry in southeast Washington have made friendships with many of the regulars, such as Rob Simms and Devereaux Simms. They are both 70-year-olds and were bus drivers and school aides. They consider themselves to be solidly middle-class and have never had to use food stamps. Devereaux Simms stated that "things began running short" after the pandemic struck and their two children were laid off.
With three grandchildren at home, they are now regulars at the Wednesday drive through. They make it a point to bring home extra supplies boxes to distribute to neighbors in need and recently gave small gifts to volunteers.
Devereaux Simms stated, "God has been kind to us," and "and you shouldn't be too proud to receive help."