Food banks and agencies in North Texas expect increased demands on their resources as coronavirus cases continue to grow and are preparing to meet those needs in creative ways.
But staff members are also concerned about strains on the system as more people suffer job losses or reduced hours as the country partially shuts down in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
“Food banks are not strangers to disaster, but this is a disaster like we’ve never seen before,” said Valerie Hawthorne, government relations director for the North Texas Food Bank.
The food bank oversees and supports a network of food pantries throughout North Texas, all of which are making adjustments and planning to shift food delivery models. Food banks will now offer pre-assembled boxes for clients in order to cut down on how many people touch surfaces. They will also coordinate with schools and the city of Dallas to reach people affected by changes to meal plan services.
“We’re concerned about the health and wellness of our seniors because they are a very vulnerable population and one that suffers from hunger,” Hawthorne said.
Feeding Texas, a statewide food bank and food support network, has already seen a significant uptick in demand for food, said Celia Cole, chief executive officer for the organization. The organization expects that trend will continue.
Cole is concerned about what economic impact the virus will have and how that will affect people’s ability to get food. The organization is working to amass as much food as possible and is organizing an effort to deliver food boxes to people in quarantine, too.
“Even if it just lasts a few weeks or a few months, there’s a lasting impact,” Cole said.
Restaurants, bars and other non-essential services have seen a drop in customers. In some parts of the country they’ve already closed up or shifted how they do business. And because of a drop in profits and open hours, many of America’s lowest-paid workers are at risk for losing shifts and income and may struggle to put food on the table.
“We know that financial security is closely tied to food security,” Hawthorne said. “We are concerned that there will be an increased need as people’s financial situations start to change.”
Like North Texas Food Bank partners, Feeding Texas partners have switched to pre-packed boxes in order to cut down on virus exposure opportunities. The boxes are free of major food allergies and approved by staff dietitians, Cole said.
Many food pickup sites are also switching to drive-thru only. Clients can tell staff who they are and provide any other necessary information. Food boxes are placed in the trunk by a food pantry worker.
“The great thing about food banks is that we’re flexible,” Hawthorne said.
Both Cole and Hawthorne said their organizations have stepped up sanitation procedures, hand washing and hand sanitizing. They encourage employees and volunteers to keep their distance and those who feel unwell to stay home. North Texas food banks have also added an additional volunteer shift in order to make sure that as few people as possible are gathered in tight spaces, while continuing to package food boxes.
“We’re doing everything in our power to ensure that volunteers are accepted into a clean and safe environment,” Cole said.
But, Cole said, if you’re healthy and have the time and resources to volunteer, please do. Because of the increased need for food, food banks need extra volunteers right now. And if you can’t volunteer, the best way to help food banks is with cash donations, Cole and Hawthorne agree. While donated food is helpful, not all food that gets donated offers the best mix of nutrition, Cole said. Cash donations allow the organizations to buy what they need most, when they need it.
And, just in time for the increased demand on food banks, North Texas food banks are getting fewer food donations from retailers, which are normally a good source of food, Hawthorne said. As Dallas residents stock up and clear out grocery store shelves, there's less food left over to be donated.
Cole is also concerned about sustaining funding throughout the increased demand. While President Donald Trump declared a national emergency last week in response to the spread of the coronavirus in the United States, that’s not the same as a declaration of disaster, she explained.
“A disaster [declaration] triggers the release of additional food bank funds, but there’s not as much of an automatic trigger [with a national emergency],” Cole said.
While there are flexible options in SNAP and other food programs for emergency situations, it’s not clear what kind of financial support the president’s emergency declaration will warrant for food banks, she said.
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