Among the many challenges America has faced this year is a rising level of food insecurity. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), almost one in four households has experienced food shortages during 2020, up from one in 10 last year. Families with children are especially vulnerable, partly due to prolonged school closures.
Since coronavirus-related shutdowns and layoffs began in March, demand at food giveaways has continued to escalate. Churches and community organizations that distribute groceries and meals say the need has never been greater.
An Exponential Increase in Assistance Requests
In the Chicago area, which is facing its worst hunger crisis in four decades, Pastor Matt DeMateo estimates that the food pantries at New Life Centers of Chicagoland now feed 60 times more families per week than before the pandemic. To expand its reach, New Life partnered with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to help community and faith-based organizations distribute food. Needs are especially high in the city’s Black and Latino neighborhoods, which have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
The goal, says DeMateo, is to “assure people that they are not alone” and to build on “a sense of community…despite all the pain” this year has brought. On Tuesday, New Life donated “thousands” of food boxes, donated Christmas gifts to 3,000 children, and handed out winter coats.
In Pasco, Washington, New Beginning Community Christian Church distributed 60,000 pounds of food last weekend, with cars lining up four hours early and stretching for blocks. The congregation plans to give out another 30,000 pounds of food on Christmas Eve.
Marlando Sparks, who’s been arranging the events with his wife, Stephanie, say they keep hearing about people in dire need of groceries—including one woman who’s been eating cat food. “Many people don’t realize how many churches get phone calls asking if there is any assistance,” he says. “That is something from before the pandemic.” Sparks adds, “Most churches will help 100 people, and now there are 500 people needing help.”
This year, New Beginning has been able to help more families thanks to an innovative government program.
Farmers to Families Gets Food to People in Need
As part of the coronavirus-relief CARES Act, the USDA established Farmers to Families to supply and distribute food that might otherwise go to waste. Since spring, the $4.5 billion program has provided about 130 million boxes of fresh produce, meat, and dairy products to Americans in need. Contracted distributors package and transport items to food banks and other nonprofit organizations, including churches.
Although Farmers to Families received additional funding as 2020 progressed, the program has run out of money in some areas due to high demand. New Beginning in Washington state had wanted to participate earlier in the fall, says Sparks, but funding uncertainties put their efforts on hold until recently. When the church received a call about available produce at a nearby farm, teams quickly headed out to transport 800 boxes of carrots, potatoes, and squash.
In Colonial Beach, Virginia, New Monrovia Baptist Church has conducted weekly food giveaways through Farmers to Families. Boxes are available to any county resident, which is “awesome,” according to church member Kelisha Johnson. “In an environment and time like this, it’s a blessing to be part of something that the community needs,” she says. “Once we set the example, hopefully, people will come on board and realize that it is important to help our brother or our sister that may or may not look like us or live near us.”