If you visited the supermarket this weekend, you might have witnessed a scene that others see daily: empty shelves. As Americans prepare for potential self-quarantine and social distancing due to COVID-19 (which stands for the coronavirus disease 2019) by stocking up on toilet paper, canned goods, and frozen meat (and let’s be honest, a few pints of ice cream), millions of our neighbors are falling short on the ability to round up daily essentials.
Nearly 47 million U.S. residents, or about one in seven of us, turn to food banks for meals, according to research by Chicago-based nationwide non-profit Feeding America. Since many schools are moving forward with online classes (which means no meals for the 29.7 million kids who rely on provided breakfast and lunch each day) and grocery shelves are running bare, today, more than in recent memory, food banks need your support.
“Feeding America is carefully monitoring developments regarding the coronavirus pandemic," says Zuani Villarreal, director of communications at Feeding America. "A Coronavirus Contingency Planning Task Force, led by the Feeding America Disaster Services team and leaders from member food banks across the nation, was formed in late February. This task force is actively supporting local food banks as they prepare to continue their operations and distribute food to the people and communities they serve, as is done with other emergencies.”
Many of Feeding America’s 200 partner food banks across the country have reported decreases in donations from retail donors, as they strive to keep enough product on-hand for customers. Food banks have also reported a decline in volunteers who are preparing for (or participating in) social distancing.
“We’re drastically shifting how we provide our services in order to keep our neighbors safe and ensure they can continue to access our services,” says Fran Yeatts, executive director of the West Seattle Food Bank in Seattle, Washington. “Some food banks are already having difficulty sourcing enough food, and we’re also experiencing a shortage of diapers to provide to families with young children.
How to Help Food Banks During Coronavirus
Each food bank’s needs are different, yet they are definitely impacted by this pandemic, Villarreal says. So the best thing you can do is use this online database to find your local food bank and contact them about their most immediate needs. Here are four ways you can likely help your town's food pantry.
If your community isn’t under quarantine, don’t be afraid to show up. Volunteers are vital to support food bank sorting, packing, and delivery, and new tactics are being implemented to keep you safe and healthy. “Food bank distribution models are shifting in order to protect the health and wellbeing of food bank staff, volunteers, and, most importantly, the people they serve,” Villarreal says.
A few successful strategies:
- Ample spacing of volunteers at the food bank site, plus frequent hand washing breaks.
- Mobile and drive-through distribution, where the food is loaded directly into the trunk of a vehicle limiting face-to-face interaction.
- Scheduled appointments with one (rather than several) members of a household going through the food assistance line to limit the number of people congregating within the pantry and minimize potential exposure at a distribution site.
2. Make a Financial Contribution
Visit the website or call your local food bank to find out how to donate money to fund their next stock-the-shelves mission.
“Beyond the normal funds needed to keep up with increased demand, food banks will also need to make large, additional purchases to accommodate the new distribution techniques,” says Dylan Lampe, senior manager for marketing and communications at the Food Bank of Iowa. “We anticipate that the pantries that we serve, over 625 just for Food Bank of Iowa alone, will have altered services which will adjust the need in their communities.”
The drive-up and mobile pantries require boxes, gas, and additional adjustments to resources, so the cost associated with this will greatly increase. And since more individuals will likely be tapping food banks for essentials, more items will need to be purchased.
“The families, seniors, and people with disabilities that depend on our services are being heavily impacted by the coronavirus," Yeatts says. "Many are employed in positions where they are unable to work remotely, have limited paid time off, and cannot afford high costs associated with seeing a doctor or going to the hospital. They’re seeing their hours cut or being laid off as businesses close, and need to provide more meals for their children as schools close."
From food to supplies to gas, financial donations are the best and most efficient way to help your local food bank source the exact products they need quickly, Villarreal adds. You should also consider these 4 smartphone apps that make it easy to feed your hungry neighbors.
3. Donate Items
As mentioned, fewer warehouse stores and supermarkets have excess supply to donate, so now is the time to raid your shelves for non-expired boxes of pasta, bonus cans of beans, and other nutritious shelf-stable foods.
“There has been a substantial reduction in food donated to the West Seattle Food Bank since coronavirus came to the U.S., most likely because households are purchasing more products than usual," Yeatts says. "As grocery stores find themselves with empty shelves, they have little left for our food rescue teams to bring back to the food bank.”
Next, take a peek in your supply closet. “Food banks are in need of household items, such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies, as well as non-perishable items,” Villarreal says.
4. Raise Awareness on Social Media
Be a shining light in the often stress-inducing stream of content on Facebook and Instagram by asking your network to reach out to their local food banks to learn how they can contribute. Every donation can make a difference.
It can feel like a scary and uncertain time. But in the wise words of Mister Rogers, when things are frightening on the news, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” These four steps are a stellar place to start.