Demand for fresh produce has skyrocketed at food banks from coast to coast since the COVID-19 pandemic forced non-essential businesses to close, leaving many workers without pay.
Donations aren’t always keeping up, even though foodservice distributors have more to give, and a social distance mandate is straining volunteer resources.
“Every food bank is seeing unprecedented need for food in their communities,” said Steve Linkhart, director of the California Association of Food Banks’ Farm to Family program.
That program works with more than 135 growers, farmers, packers and shippers to supply more than 40 food banks.
At Food Bank for New York City — in the state comprising half the country’s virus-related deaths — the need is “extreme” and expected to grow among hourly workers, low-income families and older residents, said Janis Robinson, vice president of institutions and partnerships.
“Our top priority right now is to increase the amount of food available to our city’s soup kitchens and food pantries. The biggest need right now is fresh produce and nutritional foods that people can use to prepare full meals,” Robinson said.
The goal is to provide 15 million meals to New Yorkers in the next 90 days. The organization ended its volunteer program and is using temporary workers, supporting unemployed residents and maintaining a safer environment for clients’ staffs.
Demand on the Feeding America network of food banks grows “substantially” each week and is affecting all 200 member food banks nationwide, said Blake Thompson, chief supply chain officer. The network also includes 60,000 food pantries and meal programs.
In a March 31-April 1 survey, almost 100% of the Feeding America food banks reported serving more people — but nearly 60% don’t have enough inventory to meet the demand, Thompson said.
For instance, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s monthly mobile distributions rose from 500-600 families to 800-1,000 families. At the Greater Cleveland Food Bank’s second drive-through distribution event, it served 4,000 people in 3.5 hours — one-third of them first-time recipients of its services.
While the inventory of shelf-stable items has dropped 50-70% across all the food banks, Feeding America is fielding many offers of fragile, perishable foods that food banks aren’t capable of distributing.
“We need potatoes and other durable commodities like onions, carrots, citrus — durable produce that can resist supply chain disruptions, especially as product moves from food banks to the over 60,000 agencies in the network,” Thompson said.
California’s food banks are receiving products ordinarily not offered this time of year.
“However, we need more row crops. We need nutrient-dense products — but there cannot be any ice on them,” Linkhart said.
Some food banks are also accepting donated reusable plastic containers.
Children from low-income homes aren’t getting the free meals they depend on since schools closed, but many organizations are stepping up.
Feeding America is partnering with school districts and local government agencies to serve some of the 22 million children who rely on school meals.
A Feeding America member, Rochester, N.Y.-based Foodlink, prepared 75,363 meals for school-aged children, 21,361 emergency food boxes, 2,590 emergency food boxes for seniors and 10,200 backpacks with food between March 16-April 5. Foodlink and Julia K. Caters partnered to make more meals for children.
New York City’s Department of Education started offering three free takeout meals a day at 400 meal hubs across the city to all residents in need.
The meals contain fresh produce from local growers when possible, such as apples.
“New York City schools have been a longtime supporter of New York apples and the growers who grow them,” said Cynthia Haskins, president and CEO of the New York Apple Association.
Donations are up at California food banks, Linkhart said.
“Which is great and necessary for now, but after we are through this, they will diminish,” he said. “Thankfully, have regular donors we work with and are grateful for the long-term partnerships.”
Feeding America’s national, regional and other state teams also expect donations to drop as the country recovers from the pandemic.
Financial donations are always the best, as the food banks can fill in their needs as they see them. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos donated $100 million, the largest single gift Feeding America has ever received, according to an April 2 news release.
Produce distributors and shippers can help local food banks with distribution, as well as offer more bagged and consumer packs, which allow for “no contact, no touch distribution,” Thompson said.
Bagged produce also allows Food Bank for New York City to move quickly and minimize the number of people who handle the food, Robinson said.
Linkhart agreed, especially because of the drop in volunteers: “So we are trying to ease the burden on them as much as possible.”
In 2019, the program provided 140 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables — almost 40 varieties of produce — to Californians in need.
How to donate:
- Feeding America: to donate money, visit https://www.feedingamerica.org/take-action/coronavirus; contact local food banks to donate food
- Food Bank for New York City: to give food or money, visit https://www.foodbanknyc.org/covid-19/; to donate a large amount of food, call 212-566-7855 ext. 2250
- California Association of Food Banks: To donate food or money, contact Steve Linkhart at [email protected]
- Foodlink: To donate food, contact Jeff Fleming at 585-413-4072 or [email protected]; to donate money, call 585-328-3380, mail checks to Foodlink, P.O. Box 60766, Rochester, N.Y. 14606; or contribute at https://give.foodlinkny.org/checkout/5706