Fewer people in the United States turn to food banks, but millions are still in need

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Hunger and food insecurity in the United States have declined dramatically over the past six months, but the need remains well above pre-pandemic levels. And hunger experts warn that the situation of millions of families remains extremely fragile.

An Associated Press review of bulk distribution issues of hundreds of food banks across the country revealed a clear downward trend in the amount of food distributed across the country, starting in the spring the deployment of the COVID-19 vaccine took hold and closed sectors of the economy began to reopen.

“It’s down, but it’s still high,” said Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer of Feeding America, a nonprofit that coordinates the efforts of more than 200 food banks across the country and who provided the AP with national distribution numbers. Despite recent declines, the amount of food distributed by Feeding America’s partner food banks has remained over 55% higher than pre-pandemic levels. noted.

Volunteer Markel Lucas, center, brings a box of food to a customer in the food bank car at Town Hall Education Arts & Recreation Campus (THEARC) on Wednesday, October 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo / Jacquelyn Martin)

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

These potential setbacks include the advance of the delta variant of the coronavirus, which has already delayed planned returns to the office of millions of employees and could threaten school closings and other closures as the country enters winter flu season. Other obstacles include the gradual expiration of several specific COVID-19 protections like the moratorium on evictions and the increase in unemployment benefits.

All in all, families facing food insecurity still find themselves dependent on external assistance and extremely vulnerable to unforeseen difficulties.

“There are people going back to work, but it’s slow and God forbid you need a car repair or something,” Carmen Cumberland, president of the Community Harvest Food Bank told Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Nationally, food banks working with Feeding America saw a 31% increase in the amount of food distributed in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020, just before the global pandemic reached America.

When the nationwide office and school closures began in March 2020, the impact was immediate. Feeding America-affiliated food banks distributed 1.1 billion pounds of food in Q1 2020; in the second quarter, the number jumped 42% to over 1.6 billion pounds. The third quarter saw a smaller 5% increase to almost 1.7 billion pounds of food. As distributions declined from late 2020 through the first quarter of 2021, recent data suggests the decline has stabilized.

National data is reflected in the experiences of individual food banks across the country. At the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, Calif., The level of community needs has increased in the winter and early spring of this year. In February 2021, the organization set a record with 5 million pounds of food distributed. This record lasted for a month as March 2021 saw £ 6million distributed.

After the March peak, the numbers started to drop steadily – down to £ 4.6million in August 2021. But that remains compared to £ 2.7million in June 2019.

“The recovery is going to be very, very long and steep for families who typically rely on food banks,” said Michael Altfest, director of community engagement for the food bank. Altfest said the coronavirus pandemic was an additional trauma for families already suffering from food insecurity, and it introduced a whole new category of clients who had never used food banks before but had been squeezed by the pandemic. Both categories are expected to continue to need help for a good part of the next year.

“Things don’t get any easier here for low and moderate income households, and we don’t expect that to be the case for some time,” Altfest said.

Among these newcomers to the food bank system is Ranada James. The 47-year-old childcare professional had received benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in the past, but had never dealt with a food bank before the pandemic. On a recent cloudy Wednesday, James was one of a few dozen people lining up in their cars for a weekly drive-through pantry operated by a local charity called The Arc in southeast Washington, DC, the poorest and most virus-ravaged part of the city. Volunteers loaded her back seat with hot prepared meals, lunch bags, fresh vegetables from the Arc garden and sealed boxes of durable goods.

“I never thought I would need it,” she said. “It has helped tremendously, and it still really helps.”

Even as the situation slowly improves, James finds himself in need. She has two grandchildren and two nieces who live with her, and she is preventing them from going to school in person for fear of the pandemic – meaning she cannot return to work.

“They really eat,” she said with a laugh, adding that fresh broccoli and green beans were household favorites. “They are growing up and they are picky.”

Other food banks across the country are reporting similar trends: a gradual decline this year, starting around April, but still well above any pre-pandemic figures. At the Central California Food Bank in Fresno, numbers have “stabilized” in recent months but remain 25% higher than in 2019, said food bank co-CEO Kym Dildine.

“Many people are still out of work, especially women, who are the main caregivers at home,” she said.

At the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, DC, the amount of food distributed in July 2021 was 64% higher than the same month in 2019.

“COVID is by no means over,” said food bank president Radha Muthiah. “We still see an existing need. “

How long the high level of need will last is a matter of debate, with the most conservative estimates predicting that it will last until next summer. Some predict that the country’s food banks may never return to normal.

Parallel government food aid programs such as SNAP benefits, commonly referred to as food stamps, have also seen an increase in their use fueled by a pandemic. The Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, reports that the number of SNAP users increased by 7 million between 2019 and 2021. In August, President Joe Biden instituted a permanent 25% increase in SNAP benefits, starting this month.

Corn the SNAP program does not close to cover every family in need. Muthiah said many clients who depend on food banks for their nutrition are not eligible for SNAP benefits, intimidated by bureaucratic paperwork or fearing to apply because of their immigration status. This leaves food banks as the main source of help for millions of hungry people.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the AP that at the height of the pandemic, 14% of American adults were receiving SNAP benefits. That number is now down by around 8%, but the need remains very high, and nonprofit charitable options such as food banks are playing a critical role in filling the remaining holes in millions of family budgets, a- he declared.

“We just need to understand what this pandemic has done in terms of significantly disrupting what was probably a fairly fragile system to begin with,” said Vilsack, who also held the same cabinet post under former President Barack Obama. fragility of the system, which makes programs like SNAP, programs like summer feeding programs, school feeding programs, food bank support even more important. “

Vilsack said the Biden administration decided to strengthen the national food bank infrastructure by spend $ 1 billion in June to help fund trucks and refrigerated warehouses that will allow food banks to store and deliver more fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

Now, the nation’s food bank network is busy trying to project the level of need into the future, taking into account multiple influences – positive and negative. Theoretically, the increase in child tax credit payments, which began in July, aims to ease the monthly burden on low-income and middle-class families by providing cash to use however they see fit. But food bank executives and researchers estimate that it could take six to 12 months to see a real impact on food security, as families initially spend those funds on issues like rent or repairs. car.

And the end of the national moratorium on evictions looms as a major pressure point that could plunge vulnerable families back into crisis.

The Biden administration let the federal moratorium expire at the end of August, and Congress did not extend it. As the federal government now focuses on pumping money into rental assistance programs, the national moratorium has turned into a patchwork of localized moratoria, in places like Washington, DC, Boston and the United States. New York State – all expiring at different times.

At the Drive-Through Pantry in Southeast Washington, volunteers developed friendships with some of the regulars, including Rob and Devereaux Simms. A retired bus driver and school aide, both aged 70, they see themselves as solidly middle class and have never used food stamps. But when the pandemic struck and two of their children were made redundant, “things started to take a turn for the worse,” Devereaux Simms said.

Now, with three grandchildren living at the house, they are part of the Wednesday drive-thru. They even make a point of bringing home boxes of extra supplies to distribute to neighbors in need and recently took small gifts for the volunteers.

“God has been good to us,” said Devereaux Simms, “and you should never be too proud to accept help.”


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