Food banks and other hunger-fighting organizations are important during any year, but the unprecedented nature of 2020 has reminded us of just how crucial they are to communities and those in need. COVID-19 led to an overwhelming number of furloughs, layoffs, and job cuts which, in May, resulted in an unemployment rate of 14.7 percent–the highest the country has faced since the Great Depression. The economic crisis has made it challenging for people to feed themselves and their families. Recent natural disasters like Hurricane Laura and the Midwest derecho have also made food inaccessible for local areas. But, from the large-scale efforts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and World Central Kitchen to volunteers gardening to supply a church’s local food pantry in Minot, North Dakota, we’ve seen how organizations and individuals can rise up to help keep their neighbors and communities fed.
Announced in May by USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, the Farmers to Families Food Box program is one way the federal government has stepped up to help. Part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, the initiative partners with regional and local distributors, whose workforce had been “significantly impacted by the closure of many restaurants, hotels, and other food service entities, to purchase $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and meat products.”
Since its launch the program has delivered a whopping 75 million boxes of food to food banks and non-profits to be distributed to those impacted by the pandemic. “Through the @USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program, Food Gatherers receives produce boxes from Michigan food suppliers. Each box is filled with fresh fruits & veggies and is distributed to our hunger-relief network!,” tweeted Michigan food rescue and food bank program Food Gatherers. Food box delivery will continue through October 31, according to the USDA.
Houston Food Bank is the largest food bank in the U.S. in terms of distribution, and its response to increased demand during the COVID-19 pandemic has been extraordinary. Houston Food Bank Spokesperson Paula Murphy told Garden & Health that before the coronavirus crisis the organization was delivering around 400,000 pounds of produce. That number “pretty quickly doubled after COVID,” said Murphy. She said that there was even a time when the food bank was delivering “one million pounds of produce six days a week.” As part of its planning, the food bank “expanded its infrastructure and rented two additional warehouses, more vehicles, and more forklifts,” said Houston Food Bank President Brian Greene.
Not only did the planning pay off when pandemic swept across Texas, but it also made the food bank uniquely positioned to be able to support its residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura. “We actually think that we’re in better shape than we normally would be,” said Greene. He explained that “the difference that was shocking about COVID is we jumped at the kind of rate that you would expect after a major hurricane hit, but never got the break that you’d normally get after a natural disaster. It just kept going and going and going and going.” Murphy told Garden & Health that despite some limited items, Houston Food Bank has “not ever run out of food and has been able to maintain the distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Florida is among the states hardest hit by the pandemic and currently trails only California and Texas in total reported cases. Luckily, The Salvation Army has been providing communities across the country, including Floridians, with food during the coronavirus pandemic. The organization says it has given more than 3 million food boxes and 10 million prepared meals to those in need. Demand was so high at the organization’s Broward County, Florida, branch that it nearly ran out of food.
Inspiring acts of generosity were seen after Florida’s Local 10 news station ran a story on the impending shortage. A viewer named Trinity Ward told the station that she was hungry as a child. “I was in those lines,” she said. When she saw the Broward County Salvation Army food pantry’s empty shelves, Ward took it to heart and encouraged her neighbors and family to help. “We ended up collecting 700 pounds of food,” she said. And Ward wasn’t the only one to contribute. Major Connie Long of the Salvation Army said one person brought in more than $1,500 worth of food. And another woman “even gave her entire stimulus check so that we could get food.”
Not-for-profit hunger-alleviation organization World Central Kitchen (WCK) was founded by chef José Andrés in 2010. Since then “WCK has served more than 40 million meals around the world to survivors in the aftermath of natural disasters and other crises,” according to the organization’s website. Following the Iowa derecho storm, WCK volunteers worked with local officials to pinpoint areas with major destruction and “identified residents in need to support in four cities—Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown, Marion, and Grinnell.” Simultaneously, the group activated local restaurants for meal preparation. WCK “served thousands of meals in the Cedar Rapids area, supporting 20 local restaurants,” said the organization. At the damaged Cedar Terrace apartments in Cedar Rapids, WCK quickly had food trucks bring dinner to those affected.
One hunger-battling operation in North Dakota has united nearly 200 people of all faith backgrounds. The Lord’s Cupboard Food Pantry is part of The Welcome Table, a Minot, North Dakota-based non-profit that has served those in need in Ward County since 1994. Chairman of The Welcome Table Gerald Roise tells Garden & Health that during peak demand amid COVID, the food pantry was serving up to 160 families per day–that was “roughly double what we were doing by far before COVID,” Roise said. But The Lord’s Cupboard’s operation is unique from others. Apart from the donations it receives, the organization has partnered with local farmer Duane Brekke to plant and harvest fresh produce from raised garden beds on his farm shared Roise. He explained that volunteers go to the garden three times a week to harvest produce. The volunteers then put the fresh fruits and vegetables in food boxes for clients.
The partnership is special to the organization, especially when considering that fresh fruits and vegetables are not always easy to come by “in our part of the world,” Roise says. One of the most uplifting aspects of the Minot operation is how widespread the desire to help has been–to the point where some volunteers had to be turned away. “Our biggest hardship was when we asked those who were 80-years-old not to help because of their condition. We had 90-year-olds who were sad they could not take part,” he said. The requirement was followed for the first several months but now, Roise says, some just can’t stay away from the opportunity to help.