Overcoming shame, Americans ask food banks for help

Two of every five people visiting food banks “never had to ask for help for food” before — a gauge of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, said the chief operating officer of Feeding America. Katie Fitzgerald said food banks are facing, on average, a 70 percent increase in demand. A recent survey said 7 percent of Americans received assistance from a food pantry in late April.

“We have a tremendous challenge on our hands, and we are going to continue to need the vital support of the federal government as we move forward,” said Fitzgerald during a Bipartisan Policy Center webinar on Wednesday.

Another speaker, Leslie Sarasin, chief executive of the Food Marketing Institute, said grocery shopping has changed. Before the pandemic, consumers visited an average of 4.4 “retail banners” a month. Now it’s one or two, said Sarasin, and shoppers arrive with lists. “We’re trying to buy as much as we can in as few visits as we can.” Online shopping has blossomed.

Congress has appropriated $1 billion for The Emergency Food Assistance Program — used to buy food for donation to food banks and to help cover their administrative costs — since the coronavirus spread across the country. The House is expected to vote on Friday on a Democratic-drafted coronavirus relief bill that would provide an additional $150 million for TEFAP. The bill would also increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent. Senate Republicans blocked the SNAP increase in the coronavirus bill enacted at the end of March.

Early this week, the Trump administration filed a notice of appeal in a court case involving its plan for tighter enforcement of the 90-day limit on food stamps in a three-year period for so-called ABAWDs — able-bodied adults without dependents — unless they work at least 20 hours a week. U.S. district judge Beryl Howell blocked implementation of the regulation in March, and Congress has blocked it as well during the public health emergency.

“If they had any decency or compassion, they would drop this appeal immediately,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, Ohio Democrat, pointing to the surge in unemployment. “The lines at food banks have never been longer.”

“If you haven’t had to serve food to someone who has not had to ask for that help, people come to that experience with a great deal of shame and embarrassment,” said Fitzgerald. With millions of people out of work and demand surging at food banks, “40 percent are folks who never had to ask for help for food,” she said.

Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks that describes itself as the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, estimates that an additional 17 million Americans will experience food insecurity this year, for a total of 54 million. Food insecurity ranges from a fear that food will run out to an inability to buy enough food to not eating for a day because of a lack of food.

Seven percent of respondents to the Covid Impact Survey, which studies the impact of the coronavirus, said they received assistance from a food pantry during the final week of April, and 28 percent agreed that in the past month, they had worried that “our food would run out before we got money to buy more.” By comparison, the USDA says the food insecurity rate was 11.1 percent in 2018, the most recent year studied. A fresh set of poll results for the Covid Impact Survey was to be released this week.

For every meal that food banks provide in ordinary times, SNAP provides nine meals, said Fitzgerald. “It is the right-size solution to be deployed along with making sure we are doing everything we can to optimize the charitable food system as well.”

Meanwhile, Politico reported, “Companies that appear to have little experience working with food banks or farmers” landed large contracts in the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program. One of the largest contracts, $39 million, went to an event planning company in San Antonio. The food box is intended to scoop up surplus produce, dairy, and meat products at the farm level and deliver the goods to food banks in boxes ready to be handed to hungry Americans.

A video of the Bipartisan Policy Center webinar is available here.

Results of the Covid Impact Survey are available here.