Employment was high, opportunities were plentiful and the number of people considered food-insecure was at its lowest point in years.
"2019 marked the end of a long stretch of positive economic quarters throughout the country," said Gerry Brisson, president and CEO of Detroit-based Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan.
Still, about 35 million people in the United States, including 10 million children, faced hunger every day. At the time, eligible K-12 students could get breakfast and lunch at school and receive summer food service through federally funded, state-administered programs.
However, when COVID-19 brought widespread unemployment, school and community center closures and previously unforeseen health care bills, the number of people seeking food assistance skyrocketed in 2020.
Food banks, pantries and other assistance agencies along with schools around the country scrambled to find creative solutions to continue putting food on the tables of individuals, children and families in need. Those initiatives included meal delivery programs, drive-through pantries and partnerships.
The need was staggering. Gleaners went from providing an average of 3.5 million to 4 million pounds of food per month in its five-county service region to providing an average of 6.5 million pounds each month through its more than 660 partner agencies and emergency distribution efforts. Before COVID, Gleaners worked with 520 agencies.
Despite businesses and schools reopening, vaccinations and a decline in COVID-19 cases in 2021, the need hasn't abated. The nonprofit distributed more than 7 million pounds of food in March, its second-highest month ever.
Don't expect the hunger crisis to end anytime. Feeding America, a national network of 200 food banks, projects that this year could see a 20 percent increase in need to 42 million people who are unsure of where or when they will get their next meal. During the first months of the pandemic last year, 40 percent of the people seeking assistance were families who never before needed help with food.
"We are continuing to see really high levels of need from our partner communities. Communities that have been traditionally at high risk for hunger have found themselves in deeper need," said Jon West, vice president of partner relations at the Atlanta Community Food Bank. "If you were already food-insecure, your crisis most likely has deepened. It takes time, as with the last Great Recession, for communities and households to be able to climb out of those holes."
Thinking outside the lunch box
While food banks have received great federal, state and community support, West said, some of the nonprofit and government programs that arose early on in the pandemic are starting to wind down.
Rather than cutting back as some organizations are doing, he said, the Atlanta Community Food Bank plans to continue responding for at least the next year at the level it is operating at now. The nonprofit distributes to more than 700 partner food programs in 29 counties in Georgia.
The food bank's innovations include developing 60 mobile-style distributions in high-need areas. The work entails collaborating with partners that can help them distribute large amounts of food in three to four hours. These partners range from city and county governments to libraries and other nonprofits not normally active in the food space.
One such partner is a nonprofit in Clarkston, Georgia, that works with refugee communities, West said. The Atlanta Community Food Bank provides the food that the nonprofit then packages and delivers to individuals and families who suffer from hunger and people who are at a higher risk for contracting COVID.
Similarly, Treasure Coast Food Bank in Fort Pierce, Florida, and East Texas Food Bank in Tyler, Texas, have been delivering food to the homes of the elderly and to senior living communities. And food banks are continuing to work with nontraditional partners, such YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs, to ensure children have access to meals, a Feeding America spokesperson said.
Thinking local and leveraging partners
Two Miami-based nonprofits, Health in the Hood and World Central Kitchen, have also witnessed an increase in food insecurity due to pandemic-related job losses. To bolster their efforts in the community, they partnered with Ford Motor Company and its philanthropic arm, the Ford Motor Company Fund, on a meal delivery program.
"By teaming up with corporate community partners like Ford, we are able to mobilize our food pantry and provide additional access to families who might have otherwise not have been able to receive," Health in the Hood founder and CEO Asha Walker said in a statement.
With a $25,000 donation from Ford Fund and a fleet of Ford Transit Connect vans at its disposal, Health in the Hood will deliver 5,000 prepared fresh meals to families in Florida's Miami-Dade County. The meals are prepared in a restaurant that works with World Central Kitchen.
"As part of our pledge to making the world a better place by uplifting people and helping them reach their full potential, Ford Fund invests in food pantries and Feeding America partner and non-partner food banks around the country," said Yisel Cabrera, community relations manager at the Ford Fund.
The Miami meal delivery program, specifically, builds on Ford and Ford Fund's long-term commitment to the Miami community. "Using our collective resources and expertise, we are able to provide a much-needed service for local families, who now have access to quality meals," said Joe Avila, Ford Fund's manager of U.S. and Latin America.
To begin the program, the Ford Volunteer Corps helped plant and harvest vegetables at one of Health in the Hood's nine urban gardens.
On the islands of Oahu and Kauai, the Hawaii Foodbank found a creative solution to feed hungry households when donations decreased: It began purchasing food from 19 local farms, themselves rocked by the pandemic.
In the eastern U.S., the Food Bank of South Jersey discovered meal kits as an effective way to continue providing crucial nutritional education and cooking classes to the community. Participants received meal kits along with recipes and were able to make the meals by following along online.
In the Detroit area, Gleaners adapted and added programs and initiatives. One provides quarantine boxes of food for seniors with the assistance of partners such as the Area Agency on Aging and the state of Michigan. Recipients receive one box of 20 meals monthly. Since its launch, Brisson said, Gleaners has provided 20,000 boxes or 400,000 meals a month.
Previously, guests would pick up fresh produce and dairy during a scheduled appointment at select locations once a month. But when the pandemic began, Gleaners quickly created greater access to food resources. By establishing emergency distributions across its service region, people could come as often as they needed to receive nutritious food to supplement their households. The nonprofit also started holding fresh market pantries in the evening once or twice a week to supplement what people received.
As many of these same people age, Brisson said, the health problems they have to manage increase.
"One of the most important aspects is eating healthy and managing your weight," he said. "When you look at people who have to manage their household budget based on the food they can afford, people don't eat the things they should be eating. We've all seen the labels on numerous prescriptions saying, ‘Take with food.' So, what's happening to those people who don't have food at home? Their medicine won't work right."
Access to nutritious food also affects the energy that people need to get through the day and their ability to go to and stay at work, Brisson said. It also makes life significantly less challenging.
"You've met people struggling with hunger, and you'd never know it. But it's happening all around us," Brisson said. "Families need stability, health and employment so they can manage their lives well. When you start to see cracks in the foundation in any of those reasons, it increases the likelihood you're going to need help during a crisis.
"We will continue these programs for as long they are needed and as long as we have the financial support necessary."