Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Food Bank of Northern Nevada in Sparks, Nev., was serving 91,000 people a month. As record numbers of Americans started losing their jobs in early April, it served 123,000 people — its highest number of clients ever in a single month.
Lines began to calm down a bit in mid-April as Americans started receiving their stimulus checks, as well as an additional $600 in weekly unemployment benefits, thanks to the $2.2 trillion stimulus package known as the CARES Act, Jocelyn Lantrip, communications and marketing director for the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, said.
Lantrip thinks the worst may be yet to come. More than 25% of Nevada’s labor force is unemployed, the highest unemployment rate of any state, and Lantrip said she’s “anticipating even higher need for food assistance in August” than at the onset of the pandemic.
By now the majority of Americans, particularly from lower-income brackets, have already spent their stimulus checks. If lawmakers don’t act before the July 31 deadline, more than 20 million Americans will stop receiving the supplemental $600 a week in unemployment benefits.
In total, that would mean that Americans would have $842 billion less to spend to pay for their own food and living expenses, according to Josh Bivens, director of research at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.
But just how many people are going to show up to the food bank come August 1 is nearly impossible to predict “because we have never seen anything like this before,” Lantrip said.
For instance, the food bank’s Mobile Harvest program — which distributes perishable foods and produce — served about 8,900 people per month in the eight months prior to coronavirus. In April, that number rose to 28,272 people served in one month.
Additionally, the food bank’s program for children who aren’t in school has also been in high demand. Since schools closed because of the pandemic, the food bank distributed more than 314,000 meals, which is more than it distributed during its entire previous fiscal year, Lantrip told MarketWatch.
Volunteers help load a car at a drive-thru run by the Food Bank of Northern Nevada
Not only have food bank officials had to purchase more food than ever before, they’ve also had to reconstruct their entire business model, switching it to a drive-thru operation to accommodate social distancing. They’ve also had to move their drive-thru location several times as businesses reopened and parking lots that had been empty went back into use, Lantrip said.
“ The food bank’s Mobile Harvest program — which distributes perishable foods and produce — served about 8,900 people per month in the eight months prior to coronavirus. In April, that number rose to 28,272 people served in one month. ”
“It has also been difficult to keep volunteers at a safe social distance while still having enough people to help,” she added.
‘Heartbreaking demand’ at a Hawaii food pantry
Figuring out how to operate a socially distanced food bank wasn’t an issue for The Pantry, a food bank based in Honolulu, Hawaii which provides food to any resident in need on the O’ahu Island, where it is located.
Before the pandemic, The Pantry was already serving clients through a contactless e-commerce platform that let families select the items they needed based on the size of their household and then pick the food up at the site. What was an issue, though, was figuring out how to handle the “heartbreaking demand” for food assistance, said Jennine Sullivan, executive director of The Pantry.
“ Over the course of the month, The Pantry distributed 15,000 pounds of food. In May it distributed 100,000 pounds of food and in the third week of June, it handed out an amount equivalent to April and May combined in just one week. ”
In April demand at The Pantry began skyrocketing at unprecedented rates.
Over the course of the month, it distributed 15,000 pounds of food. In May it distributed 100,000 pounds of food and by the third week of June, it handed out an amount that was equivalent to April and May combined in just one week. One family of five who Sullivan helped serve saw their entire household income “drop to zero” over the course of those few months, she said.
Cars line up to pick up food orders they placed through The Pantry, a food bank in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The exponential growth in demand doesn’t appear to be slowing any time soon and is likely to climb even higher when Americans stop receiving the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits, given that Hawaii has the second-highest rate of unemployment, Sullivan told MarketWatch.
“It’s a struggle every day,” Sullivan said, particularly because “we live on an island and food supply is so limited so we have to be creative about how we get our food.”
Everyone on the island, including grocery stores and other food pantries, are competing for the limited supply of food, and the situation has been exacerbated by the fact that so many shipments of food into the island have been delayed by weeks and sometimes months.
Normally grocery stores would donate unsold foods, but because more Hawaiians have been shopping at those stores and buying in bulk, they have little to spare, and The Pantry can’t afford to buy from those stories, Sullivan told MarketWatch. Partnerships with restaurants like 53 by the Sea, an upscale fish restaurant in Honolulu, have been particularly useful.
“ ‘It’s a struggle every day,’ particularly because ‘we live on an island and food supply is so limited so we have to be creative about how we get our food.’ ”
Earlier in the pandemic when 53 by the Sea wasn’t open, it donated 300,000 pounds of steak and 45 pounds of yogurt, which Sullivan said The Pantry used to make yogurt parfaits.
Sullivan said she is constantly looking to form more public-private partnerships, especially as August approaches.
A Nebraska food bank says ‘we need to brace ourselves’
Even in Nebraska, where there is the lowest rate of unemployment in the U.S., Scott Young, executive director of the Food Bank of Lincoln, which serves 16 counties in southeast Nebraska, said demand has been unprecedented.
“Immediately when the pandemic started, we saw an increase in food insecurity,” he said. In early April, his team helped load a truck with enough food to feed 175 people, but 300 ended up showing up.
Thankfully, colleagues at the scene recognized the problem early on, so they rationed out the food so everyone in line could get some, Young said. “We try to never say to anyone ‘There’s no food left.’ I don’t think we’ve ever gotten to the end of the line and said ‘There’s no food for you.’”
But similar to what Lantrip saw in Nevada, “there was flattening after mid-April,” he said. Since then demand for food assistance has been highly unpredictable, Young told MarketWatch. Until recently, the National Guard helped distribute food, “which made all the difference in the world,” Young said, “now we’re back to rounding up volunteers.”
National Guard troops help pre-package food bags to distribute for the Food Bank of Lincoln.
That hasn’t been an easy task given that its usual team of volunteers is predominantly over the age of 65, and the food bank hasn’t allowed them to volunteer since the pandemic hit because they are more vulnerable to coronavirus.
“ ‘I don’t think we’ve ever gotten to the end of the line and said ‘There’s no food for you.’’ ”
Looking ahead into August, Young said he had no idea what to expect. But he knows that “we need to brace ourselves.”
“There’s a lot of missing facts,” like whether schools will remain closed in the fall or whether there will be another meat shortage, Young said. “Our priorities remain the same but we will need more donations to continue our operations.”
Food pantries are also getting extra help under the CARES Act
All three pantries MarketWatch spoke to have received food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through The Emergency Food Assistance Program. Under that program, the USDA purchases foods on behalf of the states and distributes it based on state unemployment levels and the number of people with incomes below the poverty level.
Over the course of the pandemic, the department has purchased more than $850 million worth of food, which has been possible because of the CARES Act.
“This is a challenging time for many Americans,” Brandon Lipps, USDA Deputy Under Secretary, said. “USDA is addressing the unprecedented demand from all angles to equip our state and local partners across the country with food and resources to serve those in need.”
The USDA declined to share any specific measures it is taking to prepare for a potential second wave of demand for food assistance in August if unemployed Americans stop receiving the extra $600 a week.