Millions of Americans must rely on charity to put Thanksgiving dinner on the table this year, as hunger surges amid a devastating spiraling of the Covid-19 pandemic which the Trump administration has failed to get under control.
In what is traditionally a season of celebration, less than half of US households with children feel “very confident” about having enough money to afford the food needed over the next month, according to the census bureau’s latest pandemic survey. A staggering 5.6m households struggled to put enough food on the table in the past week.
Families of color are suffering disproportionately with 27% of Black and 23% of Latino respondents with children reported not having enough to eat sometimes or often over the past week – compared with 12% of white people.
Overall food insecurity has doubled since last year due to record unemployment and underemployment rates. For families with children, hunger is three times higher than in 2019, according to analysis by Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of the nonpartisan Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.
Now, as states across the country contemplate new lockdowns to slow down the rampant spread and record hospitalizations, the unprecedented demand for food aid is on the rise, according to the Guardian’s latest snapshot survey:
In Cleveland, 5,000 families showed up last Thursday for the pre-Thanksgiving drive-in distribution compared to 3,300 a week earlier and an average of 1,600 over the summer. 54% of the food distributed was for children and seniors. “We’re now seeing families who had an emergency fund but it’s gone and they’re at the end of their rope. We’re going to be doing this for a really long time, and that’s frankly terrifying given the impact hunger has on physical health, learning and development for children and parents’ stress,” said Kristin Warzocha, president of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.
One woman in Cleveland, who didn’t want to be identified, discharged herself from the hospital against medical advice so that she didn’t miss the Thanksgiving food box delivery. “That’s the depth of need and desperation some families are feeling,” added Warzocha.
Earlier this month, there were long lines in Dallas as the North Texas Food Bank provided groceries to just over 25,000 people – its busiest day on record. The food bank distributed 7,000 whole turkeys that day, and a total of about 600,000 pounds of food. “Hunger isn’t hidden anymore,” said Trisha Cunningham, CEO of the food bank. “If it isn’t you, then this is your neighbor, this is your child’s classmate, this is your hairdresser.”
In central Alabama, demand at the Grace Klein food pantry is up 20% since last month. “It could be the rumours of civil unrest or the rise in Covid cases driving demand, but people are living off this food,” said director Jenny Waltman. The pantry is currently serving about 12,000 people each week, compared with 2,500 a week before the pandemic. The 200 volunteers and staff are exhausted, said Waltman.
The Food Bank of New York were forced to start doling out the Thanksgiving frozen turkeys well before the holiday. Demand had dipped slightly in August as public health restrictions were loosened and folks returned to work, but another lockdown is looming, and the lines are growing. “We’ve been hustling to ramp supplies back up before the holidays… [and] sending more trucks into neighborhoods, so people don’t have wait in cold, crowded lines,” said Matt Honeycutt, the food bank’s chief development officer.
In Chicago, the Lakeview pantry has provided groceries for 237% more people so far this year compared to 2019, with demand “ramping up again” after leveling off slightly over the summer, according to CEO Kellie O’Connell. “The pandemic has brought to light how normal wasn’t working for so many people, especially black and brown communities.”
“Across the country demand has not let up, and food banks do everything they can to make sure families have food on the table for Thanksgiving. There’s no end in sight, but we can’t be the only solution,” said Zuani Villareal, spokeswoman for Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks nationwide. Since the start of the pandemic, four of every 10 people seeking food aid are first timers.
Hunger is not new in America. Even before the pandemic, 35 million people relied on food banks every year, according to Feeding America. But the pandemic has been catastrophic – despite initial lauded federal interventions such as the stimulus cheques and enhanced unemployment benefit. As many as 54 million people could experience hunger this year, including a quarter of all children.
How to help
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 40 million Americans relied on food banks to get enough to eat. Now, the demand for emergency food aid is growing exponentially as millions of people lose their jobs.
As this demand grows, food banks are receiving far fewer donations from retailers as people are buying in bulk, so stocks are low. This means food banks must buy more supplies to make sure they have enough to feed every hungry American asking for help.
Donate money or supplies
The Feeding America network of 200 food banks secures and distributes 4.3 billion meals each year through 60,000 food pantries and meal programs. They help vulnerable communities including the elderly and disabled, as well as providing free nutritional lunches for school children from low-income families.
If you want to help, find your local food bank, and go to their website to donate. You can also donate to Feeding America’s Covid-19 response fund.
Food banks rely on volunteers, and Feeding America and food pantries across the US urgently need help as most regular volunteers are senior citizens who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. If you are interested in becoming a new volunteer, use Feeding America’s tool to find your local food bank or pantry but please get in touch with them first before showing up. Remember, if you’re worried about your own health or the risk to a family member, “stay home” is the advice.
Feeding America also says you can help in small ways like following your local food bank on social media and sharing what they are doing online, or by becoming an advocate for the fight to end hunger in America.
In some states, the figures are even starker. In New Mexico, one in three children are experiencing hunger this year, according to Sonya Warwick of Road Runner Food Bank, headquartered in Albuquerque.
As most federal benefits have expired and the third stimulus bill, the Heroes Act, continues to languish on Capitol Hill, advocates are increasingly frustrated at the lack of political will to implement measures which would reduce hunger for families.
“Food insecurity is a leading indicator of the economy … it would be super great if the government could respond appropriately, the unnecessary delays have caused real suffering,” said Whitmore Schanzenbach.
At the heart of the frustration is the food stamps program (Snap) – a highly effective anti-poverty tool which also benefits the economy. As hunger increased, the Trump administration failed to boost Snap – as the Obama administration did during the great recession – while continuing to pursue cuts to eligibility.
“It’s difficult to understand the lack of political will to address this when the county is in such a dire emergency,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research & Action Centre. For years, advocates have urged governments to increase the real value of food stamps as many recipients turn to food banks because they run out of groceries after two or three weeks.
Another program, the US Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families scheme that has helped deliver more than 110m boxes of fresh produce to food banks over the last few months, is set to expire by the end of the year. “Less food, more people hungry,” said Susan King, president of the Northeast Florida Food Bank who on Monday was informed that the scheme would end this week.
A $450m boost to the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program for low income families is also set to run out.
Even with help from these programs, some food banks have been forced into bidding wars against Walmart, Costco and other chain grocery outlets to buy enough groceries for those in need. Without government assistance, “we’re headed toward a massive cliff come January,” said Erin Pulling, CEO of the Food Bank for the Rockies which serves Colorado and Wyoming. They’re budgeting to spend an extra $300,000 a month starting next year in order to partially replace the produce from Farmers to Families. Pulling added: “We just can’t serve as many people if this program ends.”
At the same time, national guardsmen called in to help pack and distribute food have pulled back. “We’re asking all healthy, young folks who can to come out and help,” said Angie Rogers of the Arizona Food Bank Network. “Especially in December ahead of the Christmas season, we’re going to see need go up.”
Almost two thirds of Feeding America food banks are looking for volunteers.
Nationwide, demand for food aid has plateaued at about 60% higher than pre-pandemic times. In some regions of the US, communities had only just recovered from the huge impact of the Great Recession when coronavirus – and the economic crisis it triggered – struck.
Even as hopes build about the roll-out of vaccines in coming months, experts warn that the economic fallout is likely to last much longer and will require systemic changes not just crisis intervention.
In California’s Silicon Valley, many working class families could barely afford to make rent before the pandemic. “With the high cost of living here, even federal and local benefits are really inadequate,” said Leslie Bacho, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank. “Even those who are still working are struggling.”
Almost 20% of adult renters, that’s 13.4 million people, are currently behind on their rent, according to analysis of the latest census bureau survey by the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities. Black renters face the greatest hardship, with 33% behind on rent, followed by 24% of Native Americans.
Mike McDonald, CEO of the Southern Arizona Food Bank said it was imperative to shift away from expensive emergency relief – like food aid – to structural changes like a living wage and affordable healthcare which promote economic, food and housing justice. “We need investment in prevention and social maintenance so people’s lives are better and there’s a real safety net.”
“The inequalities that existed before as a result of hundreds of years of structural racism have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Christina Maxwell, CEO of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. “It’s going to take communities an extraordinarily long time to recover from this. We’re not talking about going back to the old normal. It needs to be better than it was.”