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Pandemic Causes Rise in Need for Food Banks in US

In this April 9, 2020, photo, worker Laura Burbank pushes a cart filled with food for a family through the pantry at GraceWorks Ministries food pantry in Franklin, Tenn. (AP Photo:Mark Humphrey)
Pandemic Causes Rise in Need for Food Banks in US
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American Brooklyn Dotson needed food. Dotson had worked at a warehouse in Tennessee, but she lost her job. She told the government about her situation in hopes of getting financial aid for the unemployed. But her first payment had yet to arrive.

So, the young Nashville woman drove almost 50 kilometers to the GraceWorks Ministries food bank in Franklin. There, workers loaded about $350 worth of food into her car.

“I don’t have any income coming in…it’s just hard to get any help right now,” Dotson said. She spoke with The Associated Press while waiting in line at GraceWorks.

Food banks across the United States stay busy even in the best of economic times. Now, however, the coronavirus pandemic has brought increased demand as millions of people like Dotson are unexpectedly out of work.

“About 50 percent of the people coming through our lines have never been here before,” said Valencia A. Breckenridge, who serves as president of Graceworks.

Lack of donations

Just as demand for food is increasing, however, many of the people and places that offered donations in the past have stopped. Restaurants and hotels are closed or have reduced operations. At other times, they gave all their extra food to food banks.

“It is a perfect storm scenario,” said Katie Fitzgerald. She is chief operating officer of Feeding America. It is an organization representing more than 60,000 food banks nationwide.

Feeding America has seen an increase in demand from 98 percent of its member food banks, one study found.

In recent legislation, the U.S. Congress included money for emergency food aid. Fitzgerald has warned that the money may take months to reach local neighborhoods. She notes that the demand is now. The $100 million that billionaire Jeff Bezos promised to her organization on April 2 was already given out last week, she noted.

“When people say what do you need the most, we need food and money,” said Nancy Keil. She is president and chief executive officer of Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee.

Airman First Class Binh Pham, right, and other members of the Oklahoma Air National Guard fill emergency food boxes at the Regional Food Bank Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Oklahoma City.
Airman First Class Binh Pham, right, and other members of the Oklahoma Air National Guard fill emergency food boxes at the Regional Food Bank Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Oklahoma City.

Keeping volunteers safe from the virus

Food banks have also had to find ways to give out their food supplies while keeping their workers safe from the coronavirus.

The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank in California has built “pop-up” food banks after some of its sites closed because of the pandemic, a spokeswoman said. The newest sites serve hundreds of people every day. They are open for longer hours and use open spaces to enforce social distance.

Many older adults work as volunteers at food banks, which creates another problem. Older people face a greater risk from the coronavirus.

The East Nashville Cooperative Ministry food bank has considered closing because so many of its volunteers are older adults.

Judy Wahlstrom, age 70, directs the program. She has refused to stop her volunteer work, but taken steps to protect herself. Only one person is permitted to enter the food bank at a time, and she now wears a face mask.

“I said, ‘If I get it, I get it,’” Wahlstrom said. “I don’t have anybody at home dependent on me. I said, ‘I got to keep it open.’”

At the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, spokeswoman Cathy Nestlen said nearly 45,000 people helped out last year. This year the group is using more paid employees to reduce the number of volunteers.

The bank acts as a food distribution center for hundreds of smaller food banks. It recently moved to a six-day work week and is considering going to seven days a week.

Oklahoma is one of the states that had a high level of malnutrition in the country before the virus, Nestlen said.

“When a household becomes economically insecure, they almost immediately become food-insecure,” she added.

I’m Jill Robbins.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

warehouse – n. a place where goods are stored

income – n. money from a job or other work

pandemic n. a contagious illness that crosses into many countries

scenario n. a situation

pop-up adj. a temporary store or business that opens and closes suddenly

site – n. a place or position; an area of ground

cooperative – adj. people sharing the responsibility for running an organization or building or store

distribution – n. allocating items to people or businesses