With US meatpacking plants shut down by the coronavirus, one food bank desperate for donations is mending the broken supply chain itself.
Midwest Food Bank, a nonprofit in Normal, Illinois, United States, is raising money to pay area processors to cut and package pork from hog farmers with no buyers.
"We’ve had to go above and beyond to find sources of food," said Tara Ingham, the executive director. "Everybody’s chipping in, between the donor, the hog donor, the hog processor, just to get this meat to good use so that people who are hungry have something to eat.”
The coronavirus pandemic is forcing food banks across the country to find new ways to feed people – from slaughtering animals to enlisting car dealerships and unemployed restaurant workers to serve homebound clients. With more than 36 million Americans thrown out of work since mid-March, agencies are experiencing a surge in demand not seen since the financial crisis more than a decade ago. In some ways, the pandemic is even more cruel, depriving them of legions of volunteers, and closing the restaurants they rely on for donations.
It took nearly 10 years for America to recover from the food-security hole it fell into during the Great Recession. In 2018,11.1% of US households, or 14.3 million, had trouble accessing food at some point, a figure that has declined steadily since 2012, according to the US Department of Agriculture. While there’s no such data available for 2020, a survey of food banks across the country suggests those numbers are soaring at a staggering pace.
The Feeding America network, which encompasses 200 banks, distributed an average of 112 million meals a week from April 6 to May 3, a 32% increase from the year-ago period, according to a survey of members. The number of people showing up for free food surged an average of 59%, and among all food seekers, 38% had never used the system before.
All of this is happening as the virus has scared off a significant chunk of volunteers, many of whom are elderly and especially vulnerable to Covid-19. That has meant food banks have to improvise not just how to acquire food, but how they repackage and distribute it.
In Northern California, Second Harvest of Silicon Valley now has about 120 National Guard members temporarily deployed at three of the organisation’s warehouses, packing 15,000 to 20,000 boxes of food per day. Their deployment, however, only lasts through the end of the month.
"If the National Guard goes away, we’re going to need a massive influx of volunteers," said Leslie Bacho, the organisation’s chief executive officer.
The Arkansas Foodbank in Little Rock has turned to a programme called Get Shift Done to replace – temporarily – volunteers staying home. The programme, also running in Texas and the Washington area, uses charitable donations to hire laid-off restaurant employees. About 15 to 20 Get Shift Done workers staff each of the Arkansas Foodbank’s two daily shifts, versus 30 to 50 volunteers in pre-pandemic times.
Relying on the same workers day after day poses less risk than a larger, rotating cast of volunteers, said Rhonda Sanders, the food bank’s chief executive officer.
"Any time you let someone in the building, it’s a risk, ” said Sanders, who had one volunteer who came down with the virus, triggering a quarantine of several staff members. The volunteer recovered.
The Houston Food Bank, which covers 18 counties in southeast Texas and served roughly 800,000 people last year, has taken over an airport hangar to clean and package food. Because it can no longer pack 1,000 volunteers into its own warehouse due to social distancing, it’s relying on idle baggage handlers from United Airlines to pour giant packages of rice into individual plastic bags.
A ragtag group of volunteers assembled via Crowdsource Rescue, an app created amid the floods triggered by Hurricane Harvey, is delivering care packages for the homebound elderly.
The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank has perhaps the most high-tech solution. Autonomous-car company Cruise is using its fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolts to deliver food as the cars make their daily testing runs.
"They said, ‘Hey, we have cars doing nothing but driving around – maybe they can deliver', ” said Paul Ash, the food bank’s executive director. The startup, majority owned by General Motors Co, devised the idea. "I’d loved to have thought of that," Ash said,"but I didn’t.”
In Florida, Feeding Tampa Bay has marshaled a coalition of delivery services, a caterer and a car dealership to bring cooked meals to the hungry.
As the virus hit the region’s tourism-dependent economy, Feeding Tampa Bay saw requests for food surge more than 400%, said Chief Executive Officer Thomas Mantz. And while many people want groceries that can be packaged and dropped in their car trunks, others need food brought to them.
Restaurants prepare those meals, which are delivered by Uber Eats, Amazon and a caterer called Puff ’n Stuff. A car dealership has pitched in, deploying its loaner fleet of Volkswagen and Subaru SUVs.
Feeding Tampa Bay, in turn, helps pay the restaurant workers, keeping them employed when their own industry is in turmoil. Together, they’re cooking and moving more than 8,500 meals a day.
"Everybody in food relief, food preparation, food delivery – their business has materially changed, and they’re all trying to figure it out," Mantz said. "We’re not sure, nor are our partners, what that future is going to look like.”
He fears many people now needing aid may require help for a year or more – longer than the recovery for the hurricanes that occasionally tear through the region.
As food banks race to fill the breach, they often are kept afloat by federal money and large donations from food manufacturers that have seen demand from restaurants plummet.
The USDA is starting to spend the US$3bil (RM13.1bil) it allocated to buy fresh produce, meat and dairy from farmers and help distribute it to food banks, on top of loosening eligibility requirements for food assistance programmes like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Those steps have eased the anxiety over shortages that food banks experienced in the early days of the pandemic, but some still fret about how they’ll manage over the long term once the economy has reopened.
"A lot of food we’re getting is made available because it’s a federal emergency," said Celia Cole, chief executive officer of Feeding Texas, which helps its 21 member banks acquire food. "If the government decides on July 31, ‘OK, end of crisis, the economy reopens, ' we’re very concerned people will lose access to critical resources and we’ll lose access to food and funds we need, even though demand is going to continue to be high.” – Bloomberg
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