Hunger in the age of COVID-19 has taken many forms throughout the United States. Children are missing out on school lunches as classes go remote. Newly unemployed parents suddenly have to choose between rent and food. Indigenous communities await federal relief aid as cupboards go empty.
An estimated 1 in 8 households now struggle to get food, and Black and Hispanic families are twice as likely to experience food insecurity as white families, according to the New York Times.
Food banks, nonprofits, and mutual aid groups are often the only forces standing between families and malnutrition.
Organizations like Feeding America are on the front lines of stemming the growing crisis of hunger.
"During this time of uncertainty, Feeding America, together with our member food bank leaders, are working to ensure that this pandemic does not perpetuate inequity or deepen the burdens often borne disproportionately by at-risk populations and people from low-income households," Nancy Curby, senior vice president of strategic partnerships at Feeding America, told Global Citizen.
"We are agile and adaptive, supporting the growing needs of the communities we serve," she added.
Curby recently explained to Global Citizen how Feeding America is helping communities, the broader hunger crisis in the US, and how people are pulling together to end this injustice.
Global Citizen: As an organization on the front lines of COVID-19, what is the biggest thing you want the general public to know about what you've observed and how the crisis has evolved?
Nancy Curby: The biggest thing we want the general public to understand is that the Feeding America network of 200 food banks faced a triple whammy when COVID-19 hit: dramatically increased demand for food assistance, decreased volunteer participation, and lower food donations. Across the network, the majority of food banks have reported seeing an increase in the number of people served compared to this time last year with an average increase of almost 50%. It is estimated that approximately 4 in 10 individuals being served are accessing charitable food assistance for the first time as a result of COVID-19.
Rising need for food is a result of lost wages or unexpected expenses due to illness that have affected millions of our neighbors in America living paycheck to paycheck. More than 57 million million people have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March (according to Department of Labor statistics), and 8 in 10 of clients surveyed by food banks say it will continue to be more challenging to make ends meet over the next three months because of COVID-19.
And based upon annual unemployment rising to 11.5% and annual poverty rising to 16.6%, Feeding America estimates an additional 17 million people could be food insecure in 2020 as a result of this crisis — that means more than 50 million people won’t have reliable access to enough food. This is a stark increase over the 37 million people who were food insecure prior to the COVID-19 crisis (in 2018).
Overall, this pandemic has presented a perfect storm that has significantly disrupted the charitable food assistance system’s operating mode during a time of unprecedented need. And due to rising food insecurity rates, we don’t expect this storm to subside any time soon.
How have food banks adapted to the crisis?
Despite the challenges I mentioned earlier, the Feeding America network remains strong and resilient during this crisis. Food bankers, volunteers, and partner agencies are on the front line ensuring our neighbors have the food and supplies they need during this difficult time — and being on the front lines has required food banks to quickly adapt their food and volunteer operations to serve more of our neighbors in need, safely, and efficiently.
Due to the significant decline in food donations from our manufacturer and retail partners and the need to comply with CDC guidelines to mitigate viral transmission, food banks have had to shift their food sourcing and distribution models. Specifically, food banks have adapted distributions to follow CDC guidelines and keep volunteers, staff, and people seeking assistance safe. Today, the most common method for distributing food safely in a low- or no-contact way is through drive-through or walk-through setup. In some cases, food banks are also reaching health-compromised or vulnerable neighbors through home delivery. All of these adaptations have been made very quickly to ensure that food banks can serve the long lines of people needing our help.
September is #HungerActionMonth, and this year we need your help now more than ever. COVID-19 had led to more people turning to food banks - but together, we can make a difference.— Feeding America (@FeedingAmerica) September 1, 2020
Here are 6 ways you can pitch in to help us end hunger together. 🧡 https://t.co/UQccm3lRZbpic.twitter.com/mndm7Z1wzB
How is Feeding America tackling the needs of various communities during the pandemic?
For more than 40 years, Feeding America has responded to the needs of individuals across communities in America struggling with food insecurity. But to achieve our vision of an America where no one is hungry, we must address the root causes of hunger and deepen our understanding of the structural and systemic inequities that disproportionately impact marginalized communities and people in need of assistance.
During this time, food insecurity and the underlying inequities built into our country's systems and structures have made headline news. Stories and data continue to highlight the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on several at-risk populations including: people of color, the under- and uninsured, individuals who are incarcerated, essential workers and volunteers, undocumented individuals, people living with mental illness, people living in immigration detention centers, people with compromised immune systems, and the elderly.
During this time of uncertainty, Feeding America, together with our member food bank leaders, are working to ensure that this pandemic does not perpetuate inequity or deepen the burdens often borne disproportionately by at-risk populations and people from low-income households.
We are agile and adaptive, supporting the growing needs of the communities we serve. Feeding America dedicates our resources, platforms, and political will to make the biggest impact for people with the greatest need. This moment is an opportunity to illuminate how we are all affected when some of us lack the protections of a safety net. By focusing on the needs of people most impacted, we can better ensure the health and safety of all communities.
What's the most inspiring thing you’ve seen as the world addresses COVID-19?
The most inspiring thing that I have witnessed during this crisis is the generosity of individuals and organizations who genuinely want to help their neighbors in need during this time of significant health and economic challenge. Whether it’s a child who contributes the earnings from a bake sale or a major philanthropist making a significant financial gift, everyone plays a role in ensuring that people in need can access food and other resources for themselves and their families. Feeding America benefits from the generosity of individuals, corporations, foundations, the federal government, food donors, and food growers. We need broad support in order to address hunger in the US — we are all in this together and thanks to our generous supporters and our incredible food bank network, we are meeting the challenge.
I am also incredibly inspired by the compassionate and dedicated helpers across our food bank network who are working tirelessly to meet the growing need in their community. Food bankers and loyal volunteers are working long days to serve long lines of families who are facing hard times and need a little help. In my opinion, food bankers, along with health care professionals and other essential workers, are true heroes in this fight against COVID-19.
“I’m so excited to eat watermelon!" -Zaniyaa, 4— Feeding America (@FeedingAmerica) September 2, 2020
Make a difference for the millions of kids in America like Zaniyaa who may not know where their next meal will come from due to the pandemic. https://t.co/LtOr0jbEq6#HungerActionMonthpic.twitter.com/Os46R0havS
Has COVID-19 changed your perspective on anything essential to your work?
COVID-19 has taught all of us a great deal in a short period of time. It’s been a whirlwind of activity, stress, and urgent response. The past few months have reminded me personally just how crucial the Feeding America network of food banks is during times of national crisis — natural disasters and now a health pandemic. We are working tirelessly to serve long lines of families in need — and we are doing a great job of meeting the need. However, the COVID-19 crisis has illuminated the historical, racial, and economic disparities in our country in a way that we have not necessarily experienced before. If we are going to be successful in our goal of ending hunger in the US, we must also address the fundamental inequities that give rise to food insecurity. I am looking forward to expanding our network’s reach into disproportionately impacted communities and building strategic alliances and partnerships with organizations that are working to solve root cause issues related to food insecurity.
How can people take action and help your efforts?
Our success in overcoming the challenges caused by COVID-19 would not have been possible without the partnership of the American public, corporate, foundation, and individual philanthropists and the federal government. Early on in the crisis, Feeding America established the COVID-19 Response Fund — to seek support from a broad group of partners who care about those struggling with hunger. Donations to the fund support member food banks who are on the front lines of responding to the pandemic in their local communities by helping them purchase food and pay for their response efforts.
Given that the pandemic is not yet over and that we expect the economic impacts of this crisis to be felt for many months if not years to come, we need everyone’s continued help. You can give to the Feeding America COVID-19 response fund or give to your local Feeding America food bank directly. Additionally, anyone who is healthy and able to help can volunteer their time. Food banks need volunteers to help with food distributions and other critical activities. To find your local food bank and learn more about Feeding America’s COVID-19 response visit www.feedingamerica.org.
“My favorite thing about [the food bank] is knowing that you’re making a difference in someone’s life. It’s special to be part of that, and I think it’s really meaningful to know that you’re helping an individual or a family have secure access to food.”— Feeding America (@FeedingAmerica) August 31, 2020
-Larry, volunteer pic.twitter.com/1cYUxetOPD