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Coronavirus-linked hardship puts pressure on food banks

Volunteers pack boxes of food at the distribution center of the Capital Area Food Bank on April 9 in Washington, D.C.

Volunteers pack boxes of food at the distribution center of the Capital Area Food Bank on April 9 in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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The nation’s food banks and pantries are stepping in to help the millions of people out of a job and unable to make ends meet. You’ve probably seen the images from around the country of long lines of cars waiting for donated food.

That kind of demand is putting pressure on food banks’ resources, and some are worried about how long they can keep up at the current pace.

Food banks are sort of like Amazon distribution centers for charitable pantries, which then give out that food to people in need. And right now, there’s a lot of need out there. 

“This spike in the demand for food assistance is unlike anything we’ve experienced before,” said Michael Flood. He runs the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which he said expects to distribute 2 million meals just this week. Demand is up 50%. 

At the same time, many traditional sources of donated food have dried up: Restaurants are closed, grocery stores are overwhelmed. 

“At this rate of food distribution, we’re at somewhere between three to four weeks of inventory that we can continue to rely on,” Flood said.

His counterpart in New York has a similar projection. In a few weeks, Dan Egan’s charity Feeding New York State projects it will be buying a lot of the food it needs.

“We’re doing OK right now. We’re all worried,” Egan said. “[In a] few weeks out, what’s going to happen? We don’t have endless resources.”

There is some good news. Food banks aren’t the only source of help. Congress just allocated more than $15 billion to pay for all the expected new applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — what used to be called food stamps — as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. 

“The charitable food system occupies a bigger place in the national imagination, but the federal food assistance programs provide the lion’s share of assistance,” said Janet Poppendieck, a senior faculty fellow at the Urban Food Policy Institute at the City University of New York.

The problem, she explained, is that SNAP usually doesn’t provide enough money for a whole month of food. There’s now a push to get Congress to increase the amount of aid. 

Another problem is that most SNAP recipients can’t order food online, meaning they can’t use the aid for deliveries, which would help them maintain social distancing. 

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