Hunger Relief Solutions During COVID-19
March 30, 2020
We focused the first conversation in our Critical Connections series where the need is greatest – hunger relief. We brought together our food assistance and corporate partners, including food retailers and manufacturers, to discuss hunger relief solutions during the COVID-19 crisis. Led by Andrea Muscadin, Vice President of Partnerships, and Sarah Kinney, Director of Food Assistance, the discussion served as an opportunity to find solutions to current barriers and share best practices.
Food banks and pantries play a critical role in the social safety net, but rely on so many other players in and outside of the food system to operate effectively and maximize resources to meet food needs. Grocery retailers donate excess food to food banks. That food is then sorted and reboxed by volunteers. A large number of small, often volunteer-run, community-based organizations then open for limited hours to redistribute that food to people in need within their own community.
COVID-19 has challenged food banks at every level of their operation. Anxious shoppers are purchasing the food that grocery retailers would normally donate to food banks and the food that food banks normally purchase wholesale is going to grocery retailers. The hundreds of volunteers that would sort and redistribute the food are staying home. Food drives sponsored and managed by volunteer engagement programs have been cancelled. Food pantries are closing and those that are staying open are having to adapt to pick-up or delivery service models. The need for food assistance has grown exponentially and many individuals seeking help are coming to food pantries for the first time and are unfamiliar with the system.
PHA’s food assistance partners are making additional considerations, adapting their operations to the new reality while trying their best not to unravel the work they’ve done to be more responsive to their diverse communities. For example, many immigrant and refugee communities don’t eat processed, ready-to-eat meals and canned items, but, for many food banks, that’s the predominant food source available in emergency situations.
Our corporate partners are operating at capacity (and in many cases working overtime) due to the shift in demand. Despite these burdens, they are finding ways to maintain their impressive commitments to charity. Some manufacturers are donating differently – specifically products that would otherwise have been purchased by institutions like schools and restaurants, and some are producing food specifically to donate.
There was agreement between the two groups that when fresh produce is less available, there needs to be more healthy, non-perishable options for all consumers, including food bank participants. Just because something is shelf stable, does not mean it’s unhealthy. In this new food reality, we all have to flex, adapt, and make the most of what we have.