Stephanie Humphreys arrived at a small church in Austin, Texas, on Friday wearing a blue mask and a Hope Food Pantry T-shirt decorated with an image of vegetables shaped like a heart. Volunteers set up tables at the door with forms asking clients about income, government assistance, and personal details. In a back room, wooden pallets holding jars of peanut butter, boxes of milk, and canned goods line one wall. Volunteers fill paper bags with fresh beets, carrots, and kale. For an hour and a half two mornings a week, people can park along the curb, wait to fill out a form, and receive a bag of dry goods and produce.
Humphreys, Hope Food Pantry’s executive director, said more people were volunteering to help, and churches and community groups have increased donations, but the ministry’s number of clients recently dropped from an average of 30 to 50 people per day to 20 or 30. “We’re trying to figure out why we’re not getting the traffic,” she said, noting that because so many food pantries are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, people are struggling to find one that’s open.
In other cities—even other parts of Austin—some food banks have the opposite problem: increased demand and shrinking resources. The pandemic and local shutdowns have affected food banks in a variety of ways. The sputtering economy and lingering fears of catching the virus are forcing food pantries to continue adapting.
In April, the New York City Mission Society told CNBC that one-third of food pantries nationally had closed during the pandemic. Pantries had to trade the “choice model”—in which clients browse shelves and take what they need—for delivery or curbside pick-up. Some couldn’t adapt, especially after sending elderly volunteers home. A recent survey of 200 food banks by the Feeding America network found that more than half had reduced inventory levels.
“Like the clients, I’m still not sure which [Austin food pantry] is open and which is not,” Humphreys said.
About 15 percent of the city’s food pantries shut down during the pandemic, though most have reopened with new volunteers and a new game plan, said Derrick Chubbs, CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank.
Adding curbside service and delivery has proven difficult for smaller organizations. When the pandemic hit, Zack Timmons’s for-profit food delivery company, Good Apple, launched its “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” outreach program to help the elderly who visit food pantries. Food delivery is “definitely a huge logistical challenge,” he said, noting it requires finding addresses, mapping deliveries, and connecting people in need with the right resources. Some food pantries don’t have space or the workforce necessary to package and deliver food.
Chubbs said the Central Texas Food Bank—unlike Hope Food Pantry—has massive demand: From February to March, new clients increased by 200 percent. But food donations from grocers are down 80 percent, leaving staff members to push shopping carts through grocery stores and pay full price like everyone else. The food bank spends 10 times more money on food each week now. It is maintaining its mobile pantries and has added large distribution events, curbside pickup, and food delivery—all with a reduced volunteer force. Instead of warehouse shifts with 120 people, only 30 work at a time in three shifts to stay distant.
Other food banks have similar stories. The Community Food Bank of New Jersey has averaged 50 percent more clients in recent weeks. It has spent about $1 million above its budget each month, paying for food and temporary staff.
“April was a record-breaking month,” Community communications director Nicole Williams said. “The food bank started in 1975. In those 45 years, I don’t think our services have ever been needed more than they are right now.”
The Feed My People food bank in Eau Claire, Wis., is still distributing emergency food boxes, despite COVID-19 initially leaving it understaffed and understocked. Its warehouse normally buzzes with activity, filled with boxes of fresh produce and volunteers. Volunteers in masks huddle in groups of three to four, and the immunocompromised stay home. Several of Feed My People’s partner organizations transitioned to curbside service only, while others have closed.
Austin has plenty of food pantries, each with its own limited hours of operation. With some closing and reopening, and others shifting operating hours, Humphreys is not surprised people are confused. She has sent press releases, informed a local help hotline, and contacted other groups to tell them Hope Food Pantry is open and stocked: “We’re a little discouraged about the low numbers. As you can see, we’re ready.”
—World Journalism Institute graduate Jordan Stafford contributed to this report.