Facing Food Insecurity on the Front Lines

Facing Food Insecurity on the Front Lines

In an average year, meeting the needs of hungry New Yorkers is challenging.

In 2020, food banks in New York and beyond are finding that taking on this mission requires resourcefulness, resilience and the rethinking of how those in need can be served.

Food Bank for New York City usually supplies about 1,000 institutions, such as food pantries and soup kitchens, with groceries. Now, 40 percent of them have suspended operations because of the coronavirus outbreak, said Leslie Gordon, chief executive of Food Bank for New York City. In response, it has come up with new ways to get food into the hands of New Yorkers.

“We’re trying to meet people where they are,” Ms. Gordon said.

As part of that goal, the food bank recently set up pop-up food distribution sites in 15 New York City Housing Authority locations. It is also planning to deliver groceries, snacks and hygiene items to roughly 30,000 medical professionals at the city’s public hospitals and clinics.

The pantries in the food bank’s network that have remained opened have had to be extremely cautious. Some have lined sidewalks with yellow cones six feet apart to ensure clients follow social distancing rules.

“It’s a little challenging to be far apart at a time like this,” Ms. Gordon said. The outbreak “has turned a city that is very close and community-oriented into a city that is a bit anxiety-ridden.”

Food Bank for New York City is part of Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks around the country, many of which have faced a surge in demand as operating expenses have risen. This month, Feeding America said it would need $1.4 billion over the next six months to ensure its food banks have enough resources to serve their communities.

To help organizations like Feeding America as they assist some of those most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund has started a Covid-19 Relief Campaign. This monthlong campaign will benefit Feeding America and three other beneficiaries offering support amid the outbreak.

City Harvest, also in New York and part of Feeding America’s network, has seen more than 85 of the 400 food programs it works with shut down. In response, City Harvest has created seven emergency relief sites to bring food to vulnerable neighborhoods. It plans on introducing 22 more.

It is also rescuing pallets of perishable produce that are going untouched as Americans stock up on shelf staples.

“We’re able to save all that from going to waste and get it into the hands of people that can use it,” said Jennifer McLean, the chief operating officer of City Harvest.

As Ms. McLean sees it, the turmoil of recent weeks has surpassed the aftermath of other tragedies that the city has endured, including Sept. 11 and Hurricane Sandy. “It is so severe,” she said.

She and her team have been trying to keep their spirits high. A Red Hot Chili Peppers playlist blares from speakers in their warehouse, and every day, volunteers show up, some sporting vibrant handmade masks.

The needs outside New York have been strong as well, requiring food banks to mobilize in new ways. When the outbreak started showing signs of upending life in the United States last month, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County organized its first drive-through food distribution site.

Harald Herrmann, the chief executive of the food bank, arrived at the site just before 7 a.m., two hours before it was scheduled to open, and found hundreds of cars already. “We got crushed with demand,” he said.

Some drivers waited up to three hours for their allotment. By the early afternoon, the food bank had distributed groceries to more than 2,700 households.

Social distancing guidelines have brought on tremendous logistical challenges to food banks as well. The nonprofits in Feeding America’s network have lost nearly 60 percent of their volunteers because of precautionary measures and because many volunteers are older and vulnerable to the virus.

Those providing service are witnessing firsthand just how dire the situation is for some.

One morning in late March, staff members of the Food Bank of Northwest Louisiana were setting up a drive-through distribution site at a baseball stadium in Shreveport. Martha Marak, the executive director of the food bank, was among those perplexed to see a man stand in line with reusable grocery bags.

After filling his bags, he was painstakingly considering how much food he could carry on his four-mile walk home. Then a member of the food bank’s staff recognized him and offered a lift.

“It was very sobering,” Ms. Marak said.

While such heart-wrenching scenes speak to the despair brought on by the coronavirus, volunteers continue to step up.

Jaime Rodieck, a college student in nursing, started a work-study job at a pantry in Columbia, Mo., in September. When her campus shifted to online classes in March, she stopped getting paid. Yet she still makes the half-hour commute to the pantry to volunteer once a week. The pantry’s clients “need anything they can get,” she said. “That’s why I continue to go up there.”

Volunteers have been lifting a heavy load at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County. In early March, it put out a call for drivers with pickup trucks who would be willing to deliver food directly to homes or to institutions in need. More than 200 signed up and are now delivering up to 6,500 boxes of food a week, Mr. Herrmann said.

The pandemic has presented a disaster unlike any other, and there is no playbook to help food banks get around it, he added.

“It’s very complicated in some ways and pretty scary for a lot of people,” he said. “But it’s also revealed the best of humanity at the same time.”

Donations to The Times’s special Covid-19 campaign may be made online at GoFundMe, or with a check. Donors who wish to direct their gifts to those affected by the coronavirus should designate “Covid-19 Relief” on any check, which can be sent to The Neediest Cases Fund, P.O. Box 5193, New York, N.Y. 10087.

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