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Food banks still feeling the need for donations, volunteers eight months into pandemic

Posted at 10:24 AM, Oct 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-26 10:24:55-04

INDIANAPOLIS — As many everyday families are still searching for their favorite food items on grocery store shelves eight months into the pandemic, the low inventory means some food banks across the state have lost their No. 1 source of donation.

Food banks often received grocery store surplus to take advantage of.

“At the start of the pandemic, [surplus] stopped,” said Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana CEO John Elliott. “As they gradually, store by store, might have had a little surplus, staff don’t have the time to deal with that. They don’t have the time to set it aside and call us for a pickup. We stopped all those routes, going to the retail stores.”

The effects of the pandemic have doubled the need for food banks in central Indiana. Gleaners has had to make up for the difference by purchasing its food.

The impact of COVID-19

In a given week in 2019, before COVID-19, Gleaners would spend $10,000-$12,000 on food. In 2020, that cost might be $700,000-$800,000.

The pandemic also means food banks are toward the back of the line with food companies. The companies are trying to fulfill the orders of retailers, wholesalers, catering businesses and more.

“We’re, frankly, behind them in line,” Elliott said. “Even when we have dollars to spend.”

When Gleaners used to place orders 7-10 days ahead, it’s now become up to two months, making it harder for the food bank to predict its needs.

Those problems likely won’t get fixed until the supply chain for food stabilizes, Elliott said.

At the start of the pandemic, food banks across the state also had to change their model of food distribution on the fly, said Emily Weikert Bryant, executive director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry. The statewide organization supports food banks in all corners of Indiana.

In the pre-COVID days, food pantries had a “store” of sorts, where families could come and pick out the food they needed. Since COVID hit, the pantries have been giving out food pre-boxed to eliminate any chance of spreading the virus. Now, volunteers will load the boxes into a family’s vehicle.

“Even if the pandemic subsides, the clients we serve are more dependent not upon whether there’s a pandemic, but they’re more dependent upon the economy,” Weikert Bryant said. “Until we see economic improvement, we expect see continued demand at food banks and food pantries.”

What you can do

The two things food banks across the state need are monetary donations and volunteers.

You may be used to dropping off canned goods or other non-perishables at your local food pantry, but a monetary donation can help more people for the same value.

Food banks buy food at larger quantities than an average person or family, so they can buy at a lower rate. Many food banks also get a discount from supermarkets or distributors.

Many food pantries also have a volunteer labor shortage and simply don’t have the time or staff necessary to inspect donated food.

At Gleaners, donations have kept going as the pandemic has continued, thanks in part to corporate donations from organizations like the Lilly Foundation and people like Indianapolis Colts Owner Jim Irsay. Irsay called on the Indianapolis community to donate and matched $1 million in donations.

But Elliott said the donations will need to continue as the people in need will have a multi-year recovery.

“We need to be running ahead right now to run ahead for that multi-year period,” Elliott said.

Food banks are largely a volunteer staff, Weikert Bryant said, and as the need for food increases, so does the need for staffing to transport, inspect and hand out that food.

Earlier in the pandemic, the Indiana National Guard helped food banks with their needs, a move that Elliott said saved Gleaners.

“They were the difference between Gleaners having to cut our distribution and actually being able to double our distribution,” he said. “We would’ve had a true crisis in this state without that National Guard deployment.”

The National Guard’s deployment with food banks ended last month, leaving a huge need for volunteers.

Some of the things Gleaners needs volunteers for include:

  • Packing boxes and stacking them on pallets
  • Sorting donated food
  • Helping with traffic flow of vehicles at distribution centers across Indianapolis
  • Loading food boxes into cars

More relief from Washington, D.C.

Weikert Bryant has also called for another relief package from the federal government.

“What we’re looking for is additional help for SNAP,” she said. “We want to see a 15% increase and that amounts to $25 a month per person. It’s not a lot. But when we look at how those benefits are efficiently used and they’re used to purchase food and they’re used to make sure that the family is getting the access they need. We need to make sure there aren’t any additional barriers to SNAP going forward during the pandemic and going forward, because that’s going to hit the folks most vulnerable here.”

She also wants to see more housing and rental assistance – which could give people more flexibility to get food and avoid hunger.

“There’s always something else going on,” Weikert Bryant said. “It’s a symptom of poverty and, right now, a symptom of unemployment.”

The stigma of asking for help

Since COVID-19 has had an impact on everybody in the state in one way or another, there’s been a heightened sense of community, Weikert Bryant said. This also means there may be people who’ve never had to use a food bank before and fear the stigma of asking for help.

Nationally, about 40%-50% of people using food banks right now are doing it for the first time, or for the first time in a long time.

“If [people are] concerned about how they’ll be treated or how they’ll be received, they should expect to be welcomed and not judged,” Elliott said. “It’s about getting them fed if they’re hungry.”

Elliott said he’s seen people who are in the food line needing help approach him and promise to volunteer or donate when they’re back on their feet.

“There are times when we’re doing some fundraising effort and somebody is literally in the food line and they’re digging for a few coins,” Elliott said. “That gift of a few coins from somebody who’s struggling is in some ways more meaningful than the large checks from the large donors. … I think over time, we’re all going to take our turn needing help from somebody else, and they know we’ll help them when it’s their turn.”