COVID-19 job loss creates overwhelming demand for food banks

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national guard members packing food
Ohio National Guard members help pack boxes for Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley on March 23. (photo courtesy of Second Harvest Food Bank)

Thousands of people found themselves unemployed, suddenly, after COVID-19 mitigation measures forced many businesses to close. That’s put a massive strain on food banks in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“Demand is outweighing supply on this,” said Sheila Christopher, executive director of Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, a network of 18 food banks that serve the state’s 67 counties.

Ohio food pantries serve more than 1.6 million people annually. Pennsylvania food banks served 2 million people annually. Those are pre-COVID-19 numbers.

“You eat or you die,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. “There were already 37 million Americans struggling to find food to feed their families, even among the best of times.”

Hamler-Fugitt said they’ve already seen increases in demand between 100% and 500% at Ohio food banks. The association oversees 12 regional food banks that cover all 88 counties in Ohio.

Although the exact number of people seeking help from food banks since COVID-19 hit is not yet known — those numbers are coming soon — looking at the unemployment numbers is a good gauge of the skyrocketing need, Christopher said.

Pennsylvania has had more than 800,000 new unemployment claims since March 15, when COVID-19 mitigation measures first began in the state. Gov. Tom Wolf said in a press conference that’s about 10% of all unemployment claims nationwide.

The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services reported 187,780 new claims for unemployment benefits for the week of March 15-21. The week prior, there were 7,042 new claims reported.

That weekly claim number was among the highest monthly number of new claims received in department history. And that was during the recession of the 1980s.

Costly changes

Before COVID-19, many food pantries were set up like miniature grocery stores. Clients were able to shop the shelves, choosing items to fill their allotment.

That’s all over now. Ohio food banks put in place “no-touch” systems to limit person-to-person contact, using prepackaged bags and boxes of food and distributing food curbside or through delivery. Pennsylvania food banks have taken similar measures.

Doing things like this is safer, but also more costly. Boxes to package the food cost anywhere from 50 cents to over a dollar per box, Christopher said.

Christopher said their member food banks have seen expenses increase close to $600,000 a week. Part of that is paying staff hazard wages, for working through a global health pandemic. Part of it is buying more food to fill the need.

The Ohio Association of Foodbanks also reported increased expenses from its food banks. After the start of the crisis, the Freestore Foodbank, which supplies southwestern Ohio and parts of Kentucky and Indiana, ordered an additional $500,000 worth of food above its normal orders.

Social distancing measures also means fundraising events were canceled and that elderly volunteers and corporate volunteer groups are staying home.

The Ohio National Guard deployed about 300 members to food bank warehouses around the state to help keep things moving. The National Guard members help with sorting and packing food, distributing the food and supporting other logistical needs.

Federal waivers

Food assistance programs received a number of waivers easing the regulatory burdens, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, during the pandemic.

Most recently, Pennsylvania received approval, March 27, to operate a Disaster Household Distribution program through the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program. The program waives the need for people to complete income eligibility paperwork and allows USDA commodity foods to be included in distributions to families impacted by COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

This was a huge benefit for Pennsylvania food banks, Christopher said.

“It’s going to enhance what we can give people,” she said. “We can give them a food package that lasts longer, maybe 10-14 days, instead of four or five days.”

Wolf sent a letter March 26 to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asking him also to waive all eligibility requirements for the Emergency Food Assistance Program and be flexible in other programs during the pandemic.

While Ohio has also received USDA food program waivers, they’re still being hamstrung by federal regulations. Hamler-Fugitt said requiring paperwork to verify eligibility for services puts food bank staff, volunteers and clients at risk.

“People don’t stand in food lines that take four, five, six hours if they don’t need food,” she said.

How to help

Christopher said they are not accepting donations of food from individuals. They can’t guarantee the integrity of the food and don’t have the time to screen the food. Many food banks are also not accepting new volunteers at this time. 

If you want to help, and can afford it, donating money is the best thing you can do right now. Donate directly to a food bank or your local food pantry.

“For every dollar you give, we can purchase four meals,” Hamler-Fugitt said.

How to help

    • Donate money directly to a food bank or your local food pantry.
    • If your business can provide resources, in Ohio, contact Jessica Renwick at jrenwick@ohiofoodbanks.org or call 614-221-4336 ext. 355. In Pennsylvania, contact your local food bank: www.hungerfreepa.org/members
    • Do not hold a food drive. Most food banks are not accepting food donations from individuals at this time. 
       How to get help
  • Contact your local food bank directly. Ohio residents can find a list of emergency food assistance by county herePennsylvania residents can call 211 to get connected with local resources or click here.
  • Apply for benefits. In Ohio, visit benefits.ohio.gov or call 1-844-640-6446. In Pennsylvania, visit compass.state.pa.us or call 1-800-692-7462.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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