Food pantries have seen a large increase in demand during the coronavirus pandemic. Here's how to help families in need or where to find help if you need it.

By Vicki Wilson
May 28, 2020
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Credit: RichLegg/Getty Images

When I was little, my mom took me with her once to pick up free food. I can't remember much about it, but I do remember that she asked me not to tell anyone. My father worked full time in a steel mill, but if the mill workers were on strike, there was no paycheck. I was too young to know that then; all I knew was that there was food if we needed it, and I was grateful.

During the coronavirus crisis, more than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment and more than 1 in 5 households identify as food insecure. Food pantries have seen an increase in demand between 10 to 200 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger relief organization.

Finding Help If You Need It

Although food banks are there to deliver help whenever or however families fall on hard times, some people may find it difficult to come to terms with having to ask for it. But "it's actually a strength," says Jackie Michel, LCSW-R, a New York-based psychotherapist and consultant who has also worked with clients in Massachusetts, Texas, and California. "It takes courage to put yourself out there and be vulnerable."

But for people who've lost work because of the pandemic or other challenges, there can be feelings of fear, anxiety, loss of control, anger, depression, and even shame that keep them from reaching out. Michel suggests thinking of food from a food bank as a "gift, rather than as a handout," and as an opportunity to choose what gifts we can give in return: a phone call to a friend, a card, or teaching our children kindness and gratitude.

Richard LeBer, president of the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida, the largest hunger relief network in its area serving five counties, says it's quite possible we all know someone who doesn't have enough food. "You can't tell by looking at anyone what their circumstances are," he says. "And so, we all need to take this seriously and support one another and encourage anyone who's going through a tough time to not feel bad about taking advantage of the services that are available."

How to Locate a Food Bank/Pantry

Feeding America has a locator tool on its website and so does Harry Chapin. Hours, locations, phone numbers, and more can be found there. Social media, local news, local government, and places of worship can also be good resources. Additionally, some schools offer food programs even while closed and communities may have a toll free number to call to locate other assistance.

The Ways Help Is Provided

Procedures vary. Some places may ask for a name and address of the client, while others may not require any information to receive food. Because of current demand and devotion to keeping clients and volunteers safe, many food banks and pantries are doing drive-through pick-ups and more often, some may arrange for delivery, which might differ from usual distribution methods. Anyone with questions about how the process works can call ahead to their local food bank or pantry.

And keep in mind, using food banks does not affect other government nutrition benefits families may receive. "It's completely unrelated," says LeBer. "We don't ask for that information." From Maine to California to Hawaii, farms, grocery stores, corporations, and food distribution companies are working together with food banks to help make sure any food surplus or donations can make it to families in need.

What Food Is Offered

All kinds of foods are offered depending on supply. Rosemary Du Mont, who has volunteered at food banks in Ohio and Maryland, says she gladly shepherds everything from meat to vegetables to canned goods to tea bags onto the shelves. "Because I always have enough to eat, I feel very strongly about the fact that people do not have enough to eat," she says.

As far as dietary restrictions, LeBer says Harry Chapin normally encourages the 120 partner pantries it supplies to be "client choice," meaning food is set out like at a grocery store or farm stand and clients can choose. The pandemic, though, has impacted the ability to do that fully.

How to Help Others in Need

Coming together as a community can make all the difference during the pandemic. Families not experiencing food insecurity can always help by donating money to a network like Feeding America or to local food banks. Food can also be given directly to pantries. Du Mont says a pantry can often lack less obvious items, like cooking oils. The same goes for non-food items. "Toiletries like toothpaste and toilet paper and napkins and things of that sort," adds Du Mont.

Anyone can also contact their local food bank and volunteer; during the pandemic, there may be "contactless" ways individuals can contribute from home, such as writing thank you notes to donors—a task that children can help with—or opportunities like delivering food to neighborhood seniors.

LeBer says that the work food banks do is inherently collaborative and supported by thousands of volunteers. It's a testament to how our communities come together to help, he adds. "Food banking and what we do is just a wonderful example of what works really well in America, which is that we take care of one another."

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