Not Enough Food or Help to Go Around: Food Banks Overwhelmed in the Face of the Coronavirus Crisis

Greater Birmingham Ministries is preparing for its May 15 food distribution. Sarah Price, direct services coordinator for the ministries said there are only two people to pack the food, so the process is taking longer than usual. When the food is distributed, the shelves will be empty. (Source: Tom Gordon)

The double whammy of pandemic and job loss has left Birmingham-area food banks scrambling to provide sustenance to the needy. Some food banks have closed, especially in rural counties. Others have extended the time between food giveaways.

Compounding a drop in donated food is a lack of volunteers to help pack and deliver the food. This comes at a time when the need for food is increasing. The Salvation Army has reported four times as many people seeing food assistance. State officials also have seen a rapid increase in the number of applicants seeking food benefits.

The Greater Birmingham Ministries usually gives three brown bags of groceries to about 60 families each week. Last week more than a hundred showed up seeking food.

“We had to turn people away,” said Sarah Price, direct services coordinator at the ministries. “We referred them to other charities.”

The food bank usually gives out food weekly. It distributed food April 17, but because of food shortages, the next giveaway is planned for May 15. To make up for a lack of volunteers, two workers already have started packing the bags.

Most volunteers were seniors, and now they have to stay home because of susceptibility to coronavirus, Price said.

She said the food bank used to get a lot of goods from food drives held by churches and temples. But such groups aren’t meeting now because of the shelter in place orders. “Now we take food from wherever we can get it,” she said, and it sometimes takes longer to get staples such as flour, meal and sugar.

“We are doing the best we can with the food we have and the amount we can give,” Price said.

When current food bags are packed, she said, the shelves will be empty. “But I have faith, we will get the food from somewhere,” she said.

The Urban Ministry in Birmingham’s West End has closed, along with a number of smaller food banks in nearby rural counties. Elizabeth Wix, director of partnerships at United Way Community Food Bank of Central Alabama, said many of the rural food banks had to close because they were run by senior citizens who are more vulnerable to the virus.

Area food banks can use donated money to buy food from the open market or from the Community Food Bank at pennies on the dollar.

“In a typical year, we purchase only 15% of our food, and over the last two months we have purchased more than we did in 2019,” said Wix, whose group serves 12 surrounding counties.

“Demand is so high, and donations are down.”

The Community Food Bank has seen a decline in retail support and in the amount of food rescued from grocery stores, where, Wix said, “They don’t have as much for us.”

In fact, food banks are having to compete with grocery stores to buy available food.

“Choice is not an option,” Wix said. “We are purchasing what we can get and working with fewer partners out in rural counties to distribute as much as we have,” she said.

The Community Food Bank with its $3 million budget employs 25 people and has about 2,000 volunteers in a normal year.

The shelves at the Greater Birmingham Ministries will be empty after bags are prepared for its May 15 food distribution. (Source: Tom Gordon)

The volunteers are gone. The bank lost not just senior workers, but also volunteers who had been coming from corporations that now limit their employees’ outside activities due to the virus, Wix said.

Others volunteered from schools or churches or were retirees.

So now mobile food bank trucks are stocked by staff with boxes of groceries at the central food bank and driven out to locations throughout the area.

“It’s the safest solution right now,” Wix said.

She said that, without small food banks to handle distribution, the truck now stops at churches or in other parking lots.

In normal times, Wix said, food banks ask for a person’s name and address and, sometimes, the number of people in the household. This is not being done now because a state of emergency has been declared, she said.

At the Salvation Army, Lori Cork said every program and every service the army provides has increased due to COVID-19

“The events of recent weeks have changed the climate and culture in which a new demand for service is unfolding,” Cork said. “The requests for assistance are increasing at an alarming rate for basic human necessities.  People who have never asked for help before are calling seeking assistance.”

Instead of the usual 100 bags of groceries provided a week, the Salvation Army now provides 200 bags a week. “There is a 448 percent increase in the weekly demand for food assistance,” she said.

Last year the Salvation Army served 9,500 hot meals. This year so far it has served 15,000 meals in the form of to-go meals, a Sunday lunch and food to first responders at a COVID-19 testing site.

Cork said about 355 meals a week are being served from the agency’s mobile canteen feeding truck.

“We anticipate that the need for our services will continue to rise in the coming months due to the continued impact on our economy,” Cork said.

State Also Feels Demand

Food banks aren’t alone in feeling a crunch as a result of the coronavirus. The Alabama Department of Human Resources had a 14% increase in its food assistance program for the first two weeks of April.

“We typically receive about 28,000 applications in a given month,” DHR communications director Daniel Sparkman said Wednesday. “We have received more than 32,000 internet applications in the past two weeks.”

The department oversees the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also called food stamps.

“All Alabama DHR offices are focused on processing the increase in applications in a timely manner and getting these needed benefits to those Alabamians who are eligible for them,” Sparkman said.

Publix and Subaru Step Up

There is some light on the horizon for food banks. Last week, Publix announced it will buy fresh produce and milk to help farmers who have been hurt by the pandemic. The supermarket chain will donate these products to Feeding America member food banks operating in the communities they serve.

The Community Food Bank of Central Alabama is a Feeding America member.

Publix estimates 150,000 pounds of produce and 43,500 gallons of milk will be purchased and donated in the program’s first week.

The initiative is expected to run several weeks and will support Florida produce farmers, southeastern dairy farmers and the growing number of families looking to Feeding America for fresh fruit, vegetables and milk during the coronavirus pandemic.

A “thank you” message was tweeted to the Florida-based grocery chain Thursday from Vice President Mike Pence.

Also this week, Subaru announced that it and its retailers are making a donation to provide 50 million meals to Feeding America. Subaru plans to make the donations to 199 food banks across the country, including in Alabama.

Where to Donate and Get Help