For Hungry Americans Across The Country, Food Insecurity Crisis Deepens

Dec 14, 2020
Originally published on December 14, 2020 7:09 pm

Nine months into the pandemic, and lines outside food pantries are still a common sight around the country: families waiting in row after row of cars, snaking as far as the eye can see.

Last year, more than 35 million people experienced food insecurity. But because of the pandemic, that number could be as high as 50 million for this year, according to the hunger relief organization Feeding America.

And with multiple federal aid programs set to run out soon, many pantries fear they will run out of food, too.

The crisis is acute, and it's nationwide, says Kate Leone, Feeding America's chief government relations officer.

Since the pandemic started, an average of 60% more people have been seeking help from the organization's network of 200 food banks, Leone says, with one in two children facing hunger in some counties.

Among their clients, Leone says, are former volunteers and even donors.

"We think that about four in 10 of the people we're serving now are new to needing charitable assistance," Leone says.

That's been the case in New Orleans, where the tourism based-economy has been hard hit, says Emily Slazer, food sourcing manager of the city's Second Harvest Food Bank.

"We're seeing clients who are sleeping in their cars, arriving on site at 2, 3 in the morning, sometimes even the night before," she says. "It's just a stunning and heartbreaking visual to see so many members of our community who are hungry."

In excerpts from their interview with All Things Considered, Leone and Slazer discuss the challenges food banks currently face, the reluctance people may feel in seeking assistance and what the government should do to address the crisis.

What are some of the specific challenges Second Harvest Food Bank is struggling with now?

Slazer: Food drives are definitely down because people are not gathering in offices and schools and other places where community food drives would be organized. We also have a lot of restaurant supply donors that have had to really reduce their business. ... We also have a few government programs that are going to be ending in the next few weeks that are going to leave a really big hole that we don't have an easy way to fill. ...

Also, getting the types of pantry staples donated that our clients need is really hard right now because at times during this pandemic, it's been hard to buy a can of green beans at your local grocery store, much less get those green beans donated to the food bank. So it has a domino effect of how challenges start to pile up and the food supply is impacted.

What does the government need to do to address this crisis right now?

Leone: The No. 1 thing they can do is pass a new economic relief package. The first two packages that passed were very helpful in terms of providing flexibilities in order to be able to continue to deliver meals to schoolchildren who are missing that critical source of nutrition.

But right now, the most efficient and effective way the federal government can respond to the food insecurity crisis is to increase SNAP benefits. So SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps, allows people to use an electronic benefit card right in their grocery stores. So it has that extra impact of having people spending money locally, which is going to create jobs. ... It really is the most efficient way to deliver benefits.

Feeding America ... is the largest response to hunger in the charitable sector. But for every one meal our network provides, SNAP provides nine. So there really is nothing that can compare to the scope of assistance that we can provide to people than the SNAP program. So really increasing those benefits just a little bit during this time when grocery prices are spiking — and benefits aren't going as far — would go a long way to helping people everywhere right now.

There are so many people who are right now experiencing food insecurity, homelessness for the first time in their lives. Is there anything that you would like to say to those people?

Slazer: Food is a basic human right and hunger supersedes so many things. It makes it impossible to participate in classes, impossible to participate in work tasks. Being hungry is an emergency and everyone deserves to have that need met. And it is difficult to be accessing a service for the first time, but also right now so many people from so many backgrounds are facing the same problems. So I would hope that, particularly the new clients that we're seeing or people who are needing the help now but just not sure if they're ready to access services, I just hope that they would understand and hope that they would hear that no one needs to justify getting help or explain why they're hungry, because what's much more important than that is how can we offer them help.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A line of cars snakes around the block and then past the next block farther than the eye can see. In each car, a person or a whole family is waiting patiently, inching forward minute after minute towards a full stomach. These lines outside food pantries are a common sight around the country right now. Fifty million people in the U.S. could experience food insecurity by the end of this year, and with several federal aid programs set to run out in just days, many pantries fear they will run out of food, too. This crisis is acute nationwide, so for the big picture, we're joined now by Kate Leone. She's the chief government relations officer for Feeding America, the largest hunger relief organization in the U.S. Welcome.

KATE LEONE: Thank you so much.

CHANG: And for an on-the-ground look at what's happening, we're also joined by Emily Slazer, the food sourcing manager at Second Harvest Food Bank in New Orleans. Welcome to you, too.

EMILY SLAZER: Thank you.

CHANG: Kate, I want to start with you. What do you think has changed the most from when this pandemic started in March compared to what the situation is like now?

LEONE: Well, our network of food banks all across the United States - and we serve every county and every congressional district across the country - has seen a sustained increase of, on average, about 60% since this pandemic began.

CHANG: Yeah.

LEONE: And what they're experiencing and seeing is former volunteers coming and needing assistance for the first time...

CHANG: Wow.

LEONE: ...Even some donors coming and needing assistance for the first time. And we think that about 4 in 10 of the people we're serving now are new to needing charitable assistance.

CHANG: Are there any parts of the country that you've seen affected more severely than others?

LEONE: Yes, absolutely. And I think it's reflected in many ways based on the economies in certain areas. So a place like Las Vegas or Atlantic City that is so dependent on tourism and travel and the service industry has seen a much bigger impact than other areas may have. But really, what we're seeing is across the board in every area of the country, there's hunger, and there's food insecurity. There was hunger in every county before this pandemic occurred, and we're concerned that in some counties now we could see up to 1 in 2 children facing hunger.

CHANG: Well, Emily, I want to turn to you because, you know, you're the food sourcing manager at your food bank in New Orleans, meaning you deal with supplying food for Second Harvest. But I understand that you've been increasingly working on distribution because the demand has been so high. Can you just paint a picture for us right now? What are you seeing day to day on your job?

SLAZER: So I think the introduction to this piece was very apt, the image of hundreds to thousands of cars lining up for hours at a time. And we're seeing clients who are sleeping in their cars, arriving on site at 2, 3 in the morning, sometimes even the night before. It's just a stunning and heartbreaking visual to see so many members of our community who are hungry.

CHANG: Can you talk about some of the specific challenges your food bank is struggling with now? I mean, have you seen the supply wane because people are less able to donate food?

SLAZER: Absolutely. Food drives are definitely down because people are not gathering in offices and schools and other places where community food drives would be organized. We also have a lot of, say, restaurant supply donors that have had to really reduce their business because so much of the food industry has been impacted by this.

CHANG: Right.

SLAZER: We also have a few government programs that are going to be ending in the next few weeks that are going to leave a really big hole that we don't have an easy way to fill.

CHANG: Yeah, I can imagine. And I can also imagine that you are seeing new faces coming to your pantry.

SLAZER: Absolutely. We're definitely seeing clients who have never accessed our services before. Tourism is a big industry in the New Orleans area, and very sadly, south Louisiana has been impacted by multiple devastating hurricanes this hurricane season. So we have a lot of clients who are coming to us for the first time and often very reluctantly because they never imagined that they would be accessing these services.

CHANG: Yeah. Kate, turning back to you, I mean, you are the chief government relations officer for Feeding America. Tell me; what does the government need to do to address this crisis right now, you think?

LEONE: Well, the No. 1 thing they can do is pass a new economic relief package. The first two packages that passed were very helpful in terms of providing flexibilities in order to be able to continue to deliver meals to schoolchildren. But right now the most efficient and effective way the federal government can respond to the food insecurity crisis is to increase SNAP benefits. The program, formerly known as food stamps, allows people to use an electronic benefit card right in their grocery stores. So it really is the most efficient way to deliver benefits.

So Feeding America - we're the largest response to hunger in the charitable sector. But for every one meal our network provides, SNAP provides nine. So there really is nothing that can compare to the scope of assistance to people in this country than the SNAP program. So really, increasing those benefits just a little bit during this time when grocery prices are spiking would go a long way to helping people.

CHANG: I'm thinking about people out there who may be reluctant to visit a food bank. You know, as we said, there are so many people who are right now experiencing food insecurity for the first time in their lives, homelessness for the first time in their lives. Is there anything that you would like to say to those people in particular?

SLAZER: I think that we can all agree that food is a basic human right. And hunger supersedes so many things. It makes it impossible to participate in classes, participate in work tasks. It just - being hungry is - it's an emergency. And everyone deserves to have that need met. And no one needs to justify getting help or explain why they're hungry because what's much more important than that is how can we offer them help.

CHANG: Absolutely. Well, I also want to ask each of you this. I mean, it is December right now. This is now nine months into the pandemic. What do you think? What has the pandemic taught us about how we should address hunger in this country?

SLAZER: I'm from south Louisiana, and I think a very common trait among the communities here is resilience. You know, we have to learn to be resilient through so many crises - hurricanes, other natural disasters. And right now there's just no way to be resilient through multiple concurring, you know, disasters if you're experiencing that everyday disaster that is hunger. Everyone deserves help.

LEONE: I think that it's taught us sort of how close so many people are to needing assistance and how close to that edge people can be. I think it's increased our empathy for people needing help. And I hope it's taught us that political world where everyone is looking for that hundred-percent nonpartisan issue this can be it, that this is a solvable problem. The problem is not that there isn't enough food in the United States to meet the needs of everyone in our communities. The problem is that we have to have the political will to do it. And it's solvable, and I hope that some of the flexibilities and experimentation that has occurred during this pandemic has taught us how to do that at the granular level. But I really hope we raise it up and look at wholesale solutions going forward.

CHANG: Emily Slazer of Second Harvest Food Bank in New Orleans and Kate Leone of Feeding America, thank you both so much for joining us today.

SLAZER: Thank you, Ailsa.

LEONE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOYGENIUS' "SOUVENIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.