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How Will Food Pantries Meet the Demand of Coronavirus?

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The United States is facing an unprecedented crisis, with more than 22 million children who rely on school meals potentially having no access to food outside of the classroom. Atlanta Community Food Bank

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With children at home and countless adults out of work, food pantries and food banks are more important than ever. For many Americans, they've been the difference between eating and not eating for years. With the coronavirus pandemic just beginning, that demand for food could soar higher than ever. So what do we do to ensure these essential local food pantries stay afloat?

They simply must, but it won't be easy. Take Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB), which as one of the 10 largest food banks in the world, distributes more than 60 million meals to more than 755,000 people across metro Atlanta and north Georgia. But maintaining those numbers isn't its only concern. ACFB is usually staffed by hundreds of volunteers. Now, it has zero. It discontinued its volunteer programs to help curb the spread, and the staff is brainstorming new approaches to tackle COVID-19 head-on.

How Are Food Banks Adapting?

"We have to adapt distribution methods and minimize the number of [workers] coming in and out," Kyle Waide, president and CEO of ACFB, says. "And, instead of asking people to come into pantries to shop as they would in a grocery store, we're asking pantries to prepackage food into bags and boxes for drive-thru distributions where the client never leaves the car."

Other food banks across the country are adapting to similar regulations. In Ohio — one of the earliest states to impose restaurant closures and self-isolation rules — food banks traded hot food for brown bag grab-and-go meals. According to 13 ABC in Toledo, staff members at local food pantry Helping Hands of St. Louis are wearing gloves and in some cases masks, and they're using tape on the sidewalk to show clients where to stand for proper social distancing while waiting for food. Their team had to stop accepting donations entirely after curbing its volunteer program for safety. Harvest Hope Food Bank in South Carolina shifted its distribution model to a drive-thru only to limit person-to-person contact.

With COVID-19 shuttering businesses across the country, the need to feed the hungry grows rapidly. At the same time, grocery stores are overrun with scared shoppers. (But rest assured, supply chain experts say toilet paper supplies will be restocked, and general food supplies should be normal, according to CNBC.)

Atlanta Community Food Bank
The Atlanta Community Food Bank normally relies on volunteers, but out of an abundance of caution ACFB has canceled all volunteer shifts until further notice.
Atlanta Community Food Bank

How will food banks access the bulk of supplies they need? For one, Waide says the ACFB will lean heavily on partner farmers. "Farms have excess produce, and that's a big part of our supply chain right now, so we'll rely on that even more," he explains.

Because of pre-existing grocery store partnerships, food banks like ACFB can source bulk products quickly — and with better margins than consumers. That's why the ACFB and food banks around the country are asking community members to donate funds instead of food.

"You can give me a can of food that costs you a dollar, or you can give me a dollar and I can get nine cans of food," Waide says. "This is the same even outside disaster times."

For the ACFB, funds are also more essential than ever because they, like many other nonprofits, had to cancel their Hunger Walk Run, on March 15. This event is vital for ACFB's fundraising; it generated $800,000 with 10,000 participants in 2019.

How Food Banks Will Keep Feeding Millions

School closures across the country could leave up to 30 million kids without meals, according to CNBC. That's because the National School Lunch Program feeds up to 30 million children per day; the correlated breakfast program feeds 14.7 million children daily, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program serves more than 6.1 million children, CNBC reported. Since COVID-19 is far from over, national and local groups are doing their best to keep children fed.

In North Carolina, for example, No Kid Hungry NC is continuously updating a list of free-school-meal locations. In Northern Kentucky, restaurants like Poseidon's Pizza Company are supplementing local school cafeteria efforts by offering free small pizzas to K-12 kids, according to Fox 19. Celebrity chef José Andrés turned his New York City and D.C. restaurants into take-away kitchens to help those in need. Employees are asking for $7 per meal, although those who can't afford to pay don't have to. Andrés also is working with other restaurants to serve as community kitchens to cook for World Central Kitchen, and he's calling on more to do the same, if possible.

The ACFB is also doubling down on resources to bring supplemental food to five local school districts, adding to the resources local cafeterias have in place for daily meals for children and their families. "We're providing about 10,000 pounds [4,535 kilograms] of food per week, per site," Waide says. "Right now that's about a quarter of a million pounds of food we expect to provide these schools."

food bank
Seniors and people who are immunocompromised are at extreme risk of contracting the coronavirus, but they also still need to have healthy food.
Atlanta Community Food Bank

The Feeding America network, which ACFB is a partner member of, also is taking unprecedented steps to ensure its members are able to feed people in their local neighborhoods:

  • Launched a COVID-19 Response Fund, a national food- and fundraising effort to support people facing hunger
  • Working with government leaders to ensure its response includes support and flexibility for federal nutrition programs
  • Ensuring the 22 million children who rely on school meals have access to food outside of the classroom
  • Building an inventory of emergency food boxes to distribute to food banks as need increases
  • Providing emergency grants to food banks

How Can You Help Your Local Food Bank Survive?

As food banks rush to meet increased demands, they're doing so without one of their loyal donor groups: restaurants. Waide says the local restaurateurs are essential partners for the food bank, but it's not the food donations he's worried about.

"Since [restaurants] are increasingly skilled at eliminating waste, the food from restaurants is a tiny component of the food we distribute," he says. "Our hearts are breaking for our restaurant partners and the industry, because we know many of the people we will serve in the months and years to come will be people in that industry."

While the 40-year-old ACFB survived crises like 9/11, the Great Recession, government shutdowns and the Hurricane Katrina aftermath (many evacuees migrated from New Orleans to the Atlanta area), nothing could have prepared them for COVID-19. "My prediction is this is going to be greater than all of those," Waide says. "The economic ramifications are hard to wrap my head around. I hope I'm wrong, but we're preparing for a massive increase in need and a super challenging environment."

For organizations like the ACFB, a little goes a long way. Donations from celebrities like Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who gave $100,000 to the ACFB and Giving Kitchen, an Atlanta nonprofit that provides emergency assistance to food service workers, will keep many Georgians fed. But Waide acknowledges times are tight. You don't need a huge bank account to make a difference.

"Even if you can't donate [cash], you can spread the word so people know about the food bank," he says. Raising awareness for its new text-for-food service is particularly important. By texting "FINDFOOD" or "COMIDA" to 888-976-2232, clients can find the closest food distribution site to keep themselves and their families fed. "The need is tremendous, everyone wants to help, and even letting your network know about the food bank's services can make a difference."

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