When it comes to food insecurity across the U.S., the arrival of COVID-19 is highlighting the number of people who are unable to feed their families when confronted with an unexpected life event.
With national jobless claims now exceeding 16 million, many thousands of people who have never struggled to buy food are increasingly turning to area food banks and their agency partners for help. At the end of March, thousands of cars queued in line for up to five hours to access a mobile food distribution near Pittsburgh. On April 9, 10,000 people waited in line, some for more than 24 hours, for a mobile distribution at the San Antonio Food Bank.
In Missouri and Illinois, the number of people seeking assistance to put food on their tables is equally worrying. More than 240,000 Missourians have filed for unemployment benefits since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. In Illinois, more than 200,000 people filed new unemployment claims just last week. As surging hunger meets dwindling supplies of food and volunteers, the St. Louis Area Foodbank is working tirelessly to meet the ever-increasing demand, including partnering with more than 500 agencies in the 26 counties it serves in the bi-state area. New partnerships are being formed weekly.
Communities Affected Big and Small
Take Victory Church in Pevely, Missouri, for example. Pevely, located in Jefferson County, is located 29 miles southwest of St. Louis. According to 2018 statistics, the small city of nearly 6,000 people has a median household income of $57,000. However, even this thriving bedroom community is not immune from the economic havoc COVID-19 is wreaking on cities large and small across our nation.
In mid-March, in response to the impact of Stay at Home orders on its tight-knit community, Victory Church began providing meals Monday through Friday to seniors and those who could not leave their homes due to a lack of transportation. The church also started a curbside, drive-up program for nightly meals at its Youth Center. The meals, prepared by a professional chef and packed by volunteers, are made from food donated by local retailers and the Hillsboro and Festus school districts or purchased by the church. In three weeks, the feeding program has grown from 300 meals to nearly 400 meals per weeknight. According to the church’s Outreach Director, Laura Borman, “This has been an amazing adventure to be able to love our community.”
Trying to Meet the Need
While the free meals are making a significant impact within their community, church leaders realized that there still is a large unmet need in Pevely for food assistance. Thanks to the help of the St. Louis Area Foodbank, Victory Church held its first mobile food distribution on Thursday, April 9. Cars and trucks began lining up in the church’s parking lot 90 minutes before the distribution’s start time. And while their ages and family size vary greatly, the circumstances that brought them to Victory Church on a cool, windy Spring afternoon are similar to what food banks are seeing across the country. The ever-growing numbers of people seeking food assistance are newly unemployed, underemployed, or they cannot stretch their disability or social security payments to buy food for an entire month because they now are providing for family or neighbors who need help. Some are afraid to go to the grocery store because of an underlying illness, or if they do venture to the supermarket, they are unable to find what they need on the shelves.
Individuals and families are grateful for the overflowing box of food placed inside their trunks by church volunteers. The boxes contain fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products provided by the Foodbank, including apples, potatoes, spring mix, turnips, Kool-Aid Bursts, yogurt, milk and half n half, and bread, along with cans of soup, applesauce, snack packs of peanut butter, packets of instant oatmeal, and crackers.
Faces of Hunger
They could be our neighbors, our family members or our friends. Below is a sample of their stories:
~A 64-year old grandmother who is the sole caretaker of four granddaughters, including 8-year old triplets and a 13-year old. She recently finished chemotherapy for breast cancer. “I’m afraid to death to go into a store. We’ve not been anywhere since this (COVID-19) started,” she said, adding, “The church has been bringing us dinner every night. It’s been so wonderful.” She also is struggling to provide three meals a day for her granddaughters since they are not in school. She said she didn’t realize how much the school provided during the week in addition to meals, items like paper products. She added, “I was not stocked up for them to be home every single day.” Like many families today, this caring grandmother is trying to make the best of a difficult situation. When asked what she would do without the weekday meals provided by the church and the food being distributed that day, she said: “I think we would just go without.”
~An unemployed mother and father who have six children at home. The family receives a minimal amount of monthly food assistance from the government. Although food stamp benefits will increase for the next several months, April’s allotment falls short of feeding their large family, especially since their children are not eating two meals at school. “It’s been really difficult to keep food on the table,” said the mother. They also have been able to provide their children with dinner during the week thanks to Victory Church’s feeding program.
~The unemployed mother who is waiting to clear a background check for a job at Amazon.
~A disabled father of four who is struggling to keep his family fed, again, because his children are missing the meals they normally would eat at school. “It’s a very stressful time,” he noted.
~A recently laid-off mother of three, two of whom are disabled, who has not yet started to collect unemployment.
~An elderly woman who receives social security who has $200 to last the remainder of April, none of which is earmarked for food.
~A mother and daughter who are trying to survive off the mother’s social security benefits. The daughter had to take a leave from work in order not to expose her mother, a recent cancer survivor, to COVID-19.
~A retired mother picking up food for her single daughter whose hours at McDonalds have been cut back drastically. She helps her daughter out when she is able but her social security doesn’t stretch to feed two households. “It’s a really big sense of relief for me knowing that I can help her out by coming here. It just makes me feel good knowing that she will have some food in the house,” she said.
How to Get Involved
If you would like to donate or volunteer to help the St. Louis Area Foodbank meet the escalating need to provide healthy and nutritious food assistance in our communities, please visit the website at www.stlfoodbank.org or call 314-292.6262.
Guest Contributor: Rose Dalba