Food pantries struggle to provide during COVID-19

Kristin Schwab Mar 31, 2020
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Pantries are mobilizing to serve those who can't come to them: They’re posting social media callouts, hiring translators and renting vans for delivery. Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

Food pantries struggle to provide during COVID-19

Kristin Schwab Mar 31, 2020
Pantries are mobilizing to serve those who can't come to them: They’re posting social media callouts, hiring translators and renting vans for delivery. Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images
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At Reaching Out Community Services, a food pantry in Brooklyn, everyone is focused on avoiding germs. They’re moving food pickup to the sidewalk and staggering shifts so workers stay healthy. 

“Because if something happens to our own staff, we’re going to close down indefinitely anyway until things are all clear, and that could be months from now,” founder Thomas Neve said.

Reaching Out Community Services founder Thomas Neve is worried about serving everyone in need. “Are we ready for it? No. Simple as that.” (Kristin Schwab/Marketplace)

Closing down would leave up to 10,000 families out of food — that’s how many are registered at the pantry. He’s also worried about finding enough meals if they all show up. “Are we ready for it? No,” he said. “Simple as that.”

As many Americans stock up on weeks of provisions, food pantries, food banks and soup kitchens are figuring out how to get hungry Americans the food they need quickly and safely.

“Our biggest challenge right now is how do we find people who clearly need food, but are unable to come out to a food bank,” said Jenn Tennent, the hunger response director at Northwest Harvest, a food bank that supports hundreds of pantries in Washington state. 

Half of the people who visit their pantries are older adults, who need to stay home. So pantries are mobilizing: They’re posting social media callouts, hiring translators and renting vans for delivery.

But with movement restrictions, it’s been hard to staff up, especially since the pantries heavily rely on corporate volunteer days. “Having the people power to do transportation and delivery and to change our model is really important and that’s our second concern,” said Tennent.

Experts say the logistics will get tougher to solve. “There’s a lot of specifics about this situation that makes this particularly risky for food-insecure households,” said Judi Bartfeld, a food security researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “So in many ways I think it’s a perfect storm.”

People who are food insecure often have health problems. And they can’t afford to stock up and hunker down. So they’re more likely to get sick. And for families with kids, losing school lunches will eat into SNAP benefits.

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