Facing Shortages, Rising Demand, Food Banks May Turn to Rationing

Facing Shortages, Rising Demand, Food Banks May Turn to Rationing

Food banks across the United States are struggling to meet surging demand from families and individuals impacted by COVID-related layoffs and may have to start rationing, the Guardian reports.

The economic fallout from the public health crisis has led to a sharp increase in the "new needy" and a simultaneous decline in donations from supermarkets left empty by panicked shoppers, putting many food banks in the position of having to buy truckloads of increasingly expensive food. According to food banks and pantries contacted by the Guardian in fifteen states, the pressures are widespread and growing, with many food charities exceeding their budgets but still unable to keep up with demand. 

Even as the recently furloughed and unemployed line up in record numbers to receive grocery boxes, the prices of non-perishable staples have soared as supplies run low and bottlenecks are reported across the supply chain. At food pantries in Silicon Valley, demand has been rising about 50 percent a week, with furloughed tech company security and cafeteria staff, teachers, and restaurant workers accounting for more than half of first-time recipients. In Pennsylvania, food banks are spending an extra $1 million a week but are still turning hungry families away, while Grace Klein Community pantry in Birmingham, Alabama, expects to be $3.6 million over budget by August as its food purchases and operating costs — electricity, cleaning materials, and overtime pay — triple. 

While donations to food banks have been ticking up, they are unlikely to offset the growing demand and projected budget shortfalls. "We have enough food for the next month," said Lisa Scales, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, where spending on food purchases has tripled in recent weeks. "With so many businesses shutting, we're concerned community donations won't sustain this level." 

"It's not surprising to see so many 'new needy', when even before the pandemic millions of working Americans were already living on the edge of poverty, making tough choices between food and rent and bills every month," Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Food Research and Action Center, told the Guardian. While the federal government's rescue package expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Department of Agriculture has so far refused to fully extend eligibility using its available disaster powers. "This would help tackle hunger and stimulate the economy," said Vollinger, "but for some reason the USDA isn't using all the tools in its box."

"The only thing we can do is ration and give families less," said Eric Cooper, president of the San Antonio Food Bank, where ten thousand people recently showed up at a distribution center that typically sees four hundred. "I would challenge our federal government to put systems in place that allow for wasted food to go to families we are feeding. It's unconscionable."

(Photo credit: San Antonio Food Bank)

Nina Lakhani, Maanvi Singh, Erum Salam. "'We May Have to Ration': US Food Banks Face Shortages as Demand Surges." Guardian 04/17/2020.