On New York’s Long Island, the Island Harvest food bank has taken over a 20,000 square-foot warehouse, acquired new fork lifts and doled out 1m more meals than normal in just eight weeks.
In Florida, the Feeding Tampa Bay food bank has expanded its mobile pantries to accommodate snaking queues of cars, ranging from beat-up second-hand vehicles to Mercedes-Benz and BMW models.
And in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the state’s food bank network used 90 per cent of its annual food budget by April as it procured its own cattle for slaughter after traditional sources of food supplies dried up.
America’s food banks — charities across the country that provide donated food for the hungry — are being pressed into service as never before as unemployment surges during the coronavirus crisis and many working-class and middle-class families seek help for the first time.
Feeding America, the largest US hunger relief organisation, representing 200 food banks across the country, said it had experienced a 70 per cent increase in those seeking food assistance since the crisis began. Roughly 40 per cent of the people wanting food are first-time visitors, it said. In April alone, the group said it served 433m meals.
“There are lots of examples where people have come to the line for assistance from us, and they’re really still embarrassed,” said Mike Manning, chief executive of Louisiana’s Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank. “You almost have the feeling they’re looking around to make sure no one else sees them.”
Even before the virus crisis, US food banks played a critical role in feeding the hungry. Last year, Feeding America said it served 40m citizens. By comparison, the government deemed 37m Americans eligible for food stamps under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap).
As part of its $2tn stimulus bill, Congress has allocated $15.5bn more for food stamps and $850m for food banks. The agriculture department is also buying $3bn of produce, dairy and meat for charities including food banks, many of which are struggling to obtain supplies. The National Guard is helping to distribute food at many sites.
Mr Manning said many recently unemployed people were hesitant to use Snap, either because they had not applied before or had a “negative connotation” about asking for federal help.
“They’ve never been dependent on the government and anyone else and they don’t want to be,” he said. “It’s hard for them to swallow their pride.”
In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where there has been a coronavirus outbreak at a major meat processing plant, Feeding South Dakota said it was serving close to triple the number of families than it was before the crisis, and reaching double the number of communities.
Families are driving up to the food banks in face masks that provide both security and an extra layer of anonymity. “All you see is eyeballs and hair,” said Jennifer Stensaas, the organisation’s marketing co-ordinator.
Long Island’s Island Harvest opened up a mass sorting project in a donated warehouse in Bethpage, New York, after traditional sourcing arrangements fell through. It has purchased trailers to fill with beans, canned chicken and other products, and is using fork lifts to help deliver food — with the help of firefighters and police.
Last week the charity hosted what it said was the largest one-day distribution of food in New York state history, giving about 100,000lb of food to 3,600 families, some of them coming on foot and carrying 25lb of groceries home by hand.
Some recipients had donated or volunteered for Island Harvest in the past, said Randi Shubin Dresner, the organisation’s president. “Now they’re on the other side of the food line.”
The Second Harvest of South Georgia food bank has distributed 3.8m meals since March 13, an increase of 91 per cent from a year earlier, according to Eliza McCall, the chief marketing officer. She said the group was serving an area of 12,000 sq miles — a region bigger than seven states.
In Macon, Georgia, the Middle Georgia Community Food Bank recently gave out 30,000 meals to people who lined up in 1,200 cars, said Jeff Battcher, president of its board of directors. Another 300 to 400 vehicles were still waiting when they ran out of food, he added.
“The food supply is tight,” said Kyle Waide, president of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “The run on grocery stores has really depleted food inventories throughout the supply chain, and there is just so much demand across the country.”
The Roadrunner Food Bank in Albuquerque took the unusual step of buying 10 cattle from two local ranchers. The move, combined with an overall drop in donations, meant it used up 90 per cent of its food budget by April, but enabled it to provide roughly 8,200lb of meat to families, said the group’s communications officer, Sonya Warwick.
While several food banks said the crisis was hurting low-income families the most, some of the same groups said they had observed the crisis hitting more middle-class people, especially workers in the hospitality and services industries.
Thomas Mantz, chief executive of Florida’s Feeding Tampa Bay, said requests for support were up “400-500 per cent”, a surge he attributed to the area’s “innumerable convention centres and hotels” and affiliated leisure industries, including three sports teams.
“Many of the people who are in our care today were in those industries that were thriving at one point,” he said, adding that at one pantry, “70 per cent of the people in line for food had never been in a food line in their lives”.
The outlook was likely to get worse, he predicted, noting that many people had received their last pay cheque in March, and then a $1,200 government stimulus cheque in April.
“We think May, June, July, August, September are going to be very difficult months,” Mr Mantz said.