Pandemic continues to impact food pantries

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020, food banks and pantries experienced a significant increase in demand for their support, and those numbers continue to stay high. While the level of assistance has decreased from pandemic peaks, the need for food assistance continues to be higher than pre-pandemic times.

At Bread of the Mighty Food Bank in Gainesville, demand for food assistance across the five counties it serves remains high, Leza Mueller, communication and development director, said.

“Pre-pandemic, the food bank was distributing about 8 million pounds of food into the community a year, equating to about 7.3 million meals,” Mueller said.

Now, as levels of Covid rates decline, the food bank is still distributing twice that amount. When the pandemic hit in 2020, the food bank distributed over 18 million pounds of food, representing 15.1 million meals a year.  In 2021, the level of support continues to be higher than the pre-pandemic period, with 16.4 million pounds of food distributed, or 13.8 million meals a year.

Bread of the Mighty Food Bank receives its food from local grocery stores, including Publix, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, Dollar General, and others. The food bank serves Alachua, Dixie, Gilchrist, Lafayette and Levy counties. The food received is calculated and measured in pounds. After collected, Bread of the Mighty Food Bank then distributes the food to pantries and agencies throughout the five counties, who then provide the food to people in need.

“Not only did we see an increase in our regular distribution, but in the special request for senior needs, we saw that more than triple,” Mueller said.

The Bread of the Mighty Food Bank also makes and distributes boxes to seniors who meet specific criteria, including being on food stamps. Pre-pandemic, the food bank distributed about 800 boxes a month, which has since increased to over 2,600 boxes a month.

Amid the pandemic, when restaurants and other unessential businesses began to close, food banks and pantries stayed open.

“We are designated as essential workers,” Mueller said. “We never stop.”

The Community Food Pantry transitioned its service from an in-person shopping method to a carline method due to the pandemic. (Courtesy of Monica Wilson)

Some food banks had to change the way they conducted their usual business. The Community Food Pantry in Tampa switched its mode for distribution to encourage social distance to help contain the spread of COVID-19.

“On March 15, everything changed, and we started serving outdoors,” Monica Wilson, the director of the Community Food Pantry, said.

The Community Food Pantry transitioned from a “client choice” model where people could come into the pantry and choose what foods they would like to have to a carline method, where people drive up and volunteers put food in their trunks.

When the pandemic hit, the Community Food Pantry saw an immediate increase of up to five times what it was serving pre-pandemic. That number stayed steady through early summer of 2020 and as businesses started to reopen, the numbers have slowly come down.

“Our numbers, however, are still running over three times the amount of families we were serving prior to the pandemic,” Wilson said. “Many businesses did not hire back full staff, some businesses completely closed down and then there’s inflation with housing, the cost of groceries and the cost of gas all increased during this time period.”

The pantry distributes food on Wednesdays and Sundays and sees about 200 families each time. Families can come to receive food once per month.

The number of families that come through our door are often the working poor, many are seniors on fixed incomes,” Wilson said. “We are just trying to give everybody in the community a lift where they need it and we truly believe that food should not be where they are lacking.”

According to Feeding America, a national food network, more than 38 million people in the United States, including 12 million children, have food insecurity. In 2020, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment and food insecurity skyrocketed, with over 60 million people turning to food banks and their communities for food assistance.

As the holiday season approaches, the food banks and pantries have multiple initiatives set up to increase community awareness, to raise donations and gain volunteers.

“It’s a beautiful thing that we are able to have our community help,” Wilson said. “Our name is Community Food Pantry and never more than ever has it been a community, especially since the pandemic.”

The Bread of the Mighty Food Bank community’s holiday-designated food drives have provided over 23,000 pounds of food since November. The Community Food Pantry plans to have at least 25 food drives in December.

“Don’t forget that there is still a great need and more than double the need in our communities than it was before the pandemic and there’s a lot of families that are really looking for hope and encouragement,” Mueller said.

About Isabella Leandri

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

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