RICHMOND, Va. – When COVID-19 was declared a national emergency at the beginning of March, Feed More, a hunger-relief organization serving central Virginians, was serving roughly 161,000 food-insecure individuals.
Fast forward to early June, Feed More was assisting more than 241,000 food-insecure individuals, according to Doug Pick, CEO and president of Feed More.
“It (the pandemic) increased the number of folks that weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from by about 50%,” Pick said.
That 50% increase, he said, was largely from those who were newly unemployed as a result of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity throughout Virginia and across the country. With 2020 coming to a close, food insecurity is lingering in many Virginia households as hunger-relief organizations and local officials scramble to curb one of the pandemics’ consequences.
Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as limited or uncertain availability or accessibility to nutritionally adequate food. Nearly 10% of all Virginians -- or almost 843,000 people -- are struggling with hunger, according to Feeding America, a nationwide hunger-relief organization.
Nationwide, food banks also have to grapple with the dilemma of increased demand while maintaining their agencies network. In 2019, Feed More distributed about 32 million pounds of food, Pick said. This year, he estimates the organization will distribute between 40 to 44 million pounds of food. The nonprofit distributes food with the help of agencies, including churches, emergency shelters, rehab centers, soup kitchens and other organizations.
“We worried about that network collapsing because most of those agencies are run by volunteers, and a lot of them are seniors,” Pick said. At one point this year, Feed More lost 13% of its 270 agencies.
Feed More did not witness the phenomenon of long lines other regions experienced and was able to meet the community’s food crisis, Pick said.
“We put out some guiding principles early on that said: stick with our infrastructure, never abandon the infrastructure you built unless you have to,” Pick said. “So, we didn’t panic.”
Those guiding principles upheld Feed More’s mission while adhering to COVID-19 safety precautions.
Feed More’s Meals on Wheels program usually serves meals daily, but it is now delivering these meals frozen, once a week. The organization’s community kitchen that preps approximately 20,000 meals a week now is divided into two kitchen spaces – a prepping kitchen and a cooking kitchen – in two separate buildings, according to Pick.
Recent research found that the number of families who experienced food insecurity increased by 20% in the United States as a result of the pandemic. The study was co-authored by Elizabeth Adams, a postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Massey Cancer Center.
“We all know (the pandemic) had so many profound effects across so many aspects of people’s lives and has gone on for a long time,” Adams said.
The study methodology surveyed households across the country in late April and May with different food security levels – high food security, low food security and very low food security – about food consumption during the pandemic.
The survey saw a 73% increase in home cooking across all food security levels. The amount of in-home food availability increased 56% for food-secure families but decreased 53% for low food-secure families.
“For very low food-security families, we saw an increase in pressure to eat,” Adams said, “which means that parents are pressuring their children to eat more.”
Adams said she hopes the government takes notice of the data on how widespread food insecurity is across the country, which she said disproportionately affects low-income Black and Hispanic families.
While bringing awareness to the importance of government assistance programs and other food assistance initiatives, Adams called for these programs to “really up the benefit that they are providing at this time, because we see that a lot more people likely need them.”
Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, saw an increase in enrollment during the initial months of the pandemic’s spread in the United States, reported the New York Times. According to data collected by the New York Times, SNAP grew 17% from February to May, three times faster than any prior three-month period.
In March, 687,984 Virginians were enrolled on food stamps. That number jumped to 746,608 the following month, an 8.5% increase, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Since March, eligible Virginians have been granted SNAP emergency benefits during the pandemic, according to The Virginia Department of Social Services. The agency recently expanded these benefits through December, with more than 245,000 households eligible for emergency benefits.
The state recently launched the Virginia Roadmap to End Hunger initiative that seeks to end hunger by developing policies, programs and partnerships.
Feed More and its partners had a stable food supply and community support because of government assistance, Pick said. Such assistance includes the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Food banks, such as Feed More, and other nonprofits were able to give out family-sized boxes of produce and meat products that the department purchased from farmers and distributors affected by the closure of restaurants and other food-service businesses.
Governor Ralph Northam also announced in November $7 million in Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act funding. The funding will be allocated to the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, which Feed More is a member.
“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the already serious problem of food insecurity in Virginia and across the country,” Northam stated in a press release. “This funding will help Virginia food banks and other food assistance programs meet the increased demand for their services and ensure every Virginian has continued access to nutritious food during these challenging times.”
Feed More will use its allocated $1 million to provide refrigeration, freezer, racking and vehicles to its partner agencies.
However, Pick said he is concerned for the following year as the pandemic continues. He said there needs to be long-term government policies to address food insecurities beyond food banks’ control.
“The food banks have always been here for emergency purposes. When people get to a tight bind,” he said.
For now, Pick said Feed More will continue its best to provide food assistance to Central Virginians.
“The need is out there,” Pick said. “The jobs are not coming back overnight, and this (food insecurity) is just going to continue on.”