Food Banks And Pantries Facing High Demand Due To COVID-19

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The week the Bradford Food Pantry in Starke reopened with its drive-thru food distribution in late March, a business owner walked from across the street and handed over a check for $1,000.

The man simply said he saw the good the food pantry was doing and wanted to contribute.

It’s just one of countless acts of generosity the pantry has seen during the pandemic, Betty Warren, its coordinator of volunteers, said recently.

“This community has reached so deep in their pockets,” Warren, 80, who has been volunteering herself for 20 years, said while tearing up.

How you can help

If you would like to contribute to a food bank or food pantry this season, please visit one of these organizations’ websites:

Food pantries and food banks alike are desperate for such benevolence these days. COVID-19 has left millions more people nationwide at risk of food insecurity. The number of people seeking help from food banks has increased 60%, according to Feeding America, a Chicago-based organization that coordinates efforts by such organizations nationally.

Alachua County has a projected increase in food insecurity rate of 18.9%, according to Feeding America. Bradford County’s increase would be 16.3%, with Marion County at 14.4%.

As people lost their jobs or had hours cut back, area food banks ramped their efforts to help Americans put food on the table for those who need it most. However, officials at those banks fear being unable to serve the elevated need as the holiday season approaches.

Before the pandemic, Bradford Food served about a total of 100 families per week while open every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Warren said. Once it reopened in early spring, the pantry served about 200 families during the two hours its weekly drive-thru food distribution was open on Fridays. The number has leveled out to about 100 families a week.

“We have so many people in Bradford County that donate so much, and we feel like we owe them an obligation to make sure that the people get it who need it,” Warren said.

The banks supply food for the pantries to distribute to the community. To protect both workers and the needy, the industry has gone from a shop-what-you-need model to a contactless drive-up system providing pre-packed boxes with a week’s worth of groceries.

Forklift operator Sam Hill unloads boxes of oranges from a Bread of the Mighty Food Bank truck. Its trucks make more than 100 stops each week to collect food that will be distributed to area pantries. (Hope Hathcock/WUFT News)

The staff at Bread of the Mighty Food Bank in Gainesville has worked nonstop to keep up with the 50% higher need, said Karen Woolfstead, its communication and development director.

“It’s just on steroids right now,” Woolfstead said of the daily warehouse operations on Northwest 10th Avenue.

This past year, Bread of the Mighty distributed 18 million pounds of food to 190 nonprofit agencies serving five area counties, which is 10 million more pounds of food than 12 months, she said. Only 65 of its agencies are currently active.

It’s one of 12 food banks in Florida that use a network of trucks to distribute its food. It also has five refrigerator trucks that collect reclaimed meats, produce, dairy products, canned foods, etc., from grocery stores, all at a reduced price or as a donation, Woolfstead said.

“There is no shortage of food,” she said. “There is just a shortage of access to food.”

Feeding Northeast Florida, of Jacksonville, is also seeing its communities unite through individual and corporate donations, said Susan King, the food bank’s president and CEO.

One donor contributed 1.6 million eggs, she said. Another donated 40,000 pounds of chicken. People even drive up in their cars after doing a neighborhood food collection.

“Everybody understands that hunger is impacting so many more of our neighbors than it did in the past,” King said.

In 2019, Feeding Northeast Florida distributed about 17 million pounds of food; this year, it’s on track to provide more than 31 million pounds, she said. In addition, the food bank has spent an unprecedented $2 million on food bought at very discounted prices, she said.

In response, it is using a donated warehouse as a second facility, she said. While the bank used to hold 30-50 volunteers a day, social distancing reduced those numbers to only 15-20.

Volunteers Andrew Wise, 20, and Maggie Zeidwig, 24, sort doughnuts inside Bread of the Mighty Food Bank for food pantries to pick up and distribute. Twenty-five staff members work at the 28,000 square foot warehouse at 325 NW 10th Ave. in Gainesville. (Hope Hathcock/WUFT News)

Before COVID-19, Feeding Northeast Florida worked with 250 agencies throughout eight counties to distribute food directly to people in need, King said. In March, the number of agencies dropped to 110 because many were run by older adults or retirees, she said.

As the pandemic continued, the bank saw its numbers rise again as pantries reopened and more organizations offered to contribute, King said.

These days, it works with 300 agencies – and they have reported that 30% of the people served have never sought charity food assistance, she said.

Twenty-five percent are struggling financially due to COVID-19. Moreover, before the pandemic, 1 in 6 adults in the eight counties reported some level of food insecurity, she said. Now, it is 1 in 4 adults, which King describes as “a powerful, significant and very sad number.”

Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida in Orlando experienced an explosive demand of people seeking food assistance as well, said Dan Samuels, its director of philanthropy.

The six counties Second Harvest serves took a major hit economically due to their reliance on the hospitality industry, which has suffered greatly due to the pandemic, Samuels said.

Before COVID-19, Food Finder – a website tool that families and people can use to search for nearby food pantries – had 35 searches a day, he said. In late March, that number skyrocketed to 1,500 searches a day, but then leveled at about 300-400 per day.

As Thanksgiving approaches, however, the past two weeks have seen a spike to 500 searches.

Second Harvest’s goal is to enable people to better focus on their other challenges, Samuels said.

“If you have to make the decision between food and medicine for your kid, we want you to choose medicine for your kid and come get food from us,” he said. “We want you to take care of your family.”

A generous grant from an anonymous donor led to the creation of Bring Hope Home – a home delivery program Second Harvest now uses to help those who are homebound because of safety or medical reasons, by having a trained volunteer deliver food to their door, Samuels said.

While food insecurity historically rises during the holidays, and with the pandemic surging again, area food banks and pantries are preparing to operate at their highest levels yet.

“We very much see this as a marathon,” Samuels said.

About Hope Hathcock

Hope is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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