Food insecurity amplified: How the coronavirus impacts food justice organizations and the communities they serve

Lisi Ludwig/Staff

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Some of the first stories and social media posts to arise after the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States were about food. Panic-buying, grocery stores being picked clean, restaurants closing their doors to sit-down customers or shutting down completely. These stories need to be highlighted to understand the pandemic’s severity, but it is also important to highlight the struggles of communities who were food insecure before the coronavirus outbreak. Where do they get access to food now? Who is helping them? 

Food banks and food justice nonprofits are a big part of this equation. As individuals or families who were living paycheck to paycheck now struggle to afford groceries, and as those who had limited access to food previously now see their options diminish further, the need for resources like food banks has increased dramatically. 

Earlier this month, Feeding America reported that 98% of food banks have seen a jump in demand, but 59% have seen a decrease in supply. Even more jarring are videos on the news and social media platforms of cars lined up for blocks at food banks, waiting to receive help.

To tackle this growing demand in the Bay Area, the Alameda County Community Food Bank, or ACCFB, has opened a drive-thru distribution, in addition to the work it normally does with other distributors and through its help line. 

“Our drive-thru distribution served about 740 families in a single day, and we’re seeing that number increase every time we host it,” said Brittany Paris, ACCFB’s communications coordinator. “Our help line call volume is five to six times what we were seeing before.”

Most of the people calling the line have never used the food bank’s services before, indicating how unprecedented this situation is for food justice.

“Our help line call volume is five to six times what we were seeing before.” — Brittany Paris

“Our mission statement at ACCFB is food is a basic human right,” Paris said. “That’s what we’re living by every single day when we’re out there packing food, making sure our partner agencies have food that they can distribute to their communities and making sure that any neighbor in Alameda County has access to food.”

This mentality is important, as the COVID-19 pandemic has only widened the gap between those with reliable access to food and those who are food insecure.

“There are more people who need the food, and the people who are suffering in the good times are suffering even more,” said Yuka Nagashima, executive director of Food Shift, a food waste-focused nonprofit. “We weren’t just going to sit by the sidelines. … No, this is the time where we need to shine, but how do we shine? Where’s our role?”

Food Shift had to reevaluate how to best help East Bay communities when California’s shelter-in-place order first went into effect in March. Before the pandemic, the group focused mainly on its Food Shift Kitchen program, which teaches individuals with high barriers to employment how to cook artisanal meals using food that would otherwise be discarded because of imperfections or as surplus. The meals are then served via catering. 

Because the kitchen program and the catering company are so intertwined, Food Shift had to make a drastic change once both were closed down. Fortunately, it was able to transition to prioritizing food recovery in order to help other local organizations. Instead of making meals, Food Shift is ensuring that access to produce and other ingredients is still available to its partners, who have greater capacity to make meals than Food Shift does.

Despite this change, Food Shift and other nonprofits still need dedicated time for grant writing in order to receive additional funding. Many funders are making more grants available with the coronavirus in mind, often with less extensive requirements and shorter wait times for decisions than grants offered before the pandemic. 

Other funders such as the Clif Bar Family Foundation are working to maintain the flexibility they had previously given grant recipients via operational funds. 

Despite this change, Food Shift and other nonprofits still need dedicated time for grant writing in order to receive additional funding.

“In large part, foundations give restricted funds, but the Clif Bar Family Foundation is unusual in that aspect, in that we’ve taken a step back and we’ve thought, ‘Well, if we’re going to invest in you long term, we trust you to use those funds in the way you see best fit,’ ” said Terry Mock, communications manager for the foundation.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Clif Bar Family Foundation mainly funded small to medium-sized nonprofits, focusing on hyperlocal groups doing work related to food systems, public health and the environment. 

While a lot may be changing for these organizations, the Clif Bar Family Foundation is in a relatively stable position. The grants it gives come from part of Clif Bar’s income, and given that the company’s products have long shelf lives, sales have been high enough to keep nonprofit funding going.

“I think the best way that we can continue helping nonprofits is to be a source of stability and consistency, which is why we decided to keep the funding cycle the same,” Mock said. 

Hopefully, this consistency will allow nonprofits to push forward during this scary time, providing them with the financial and emotional security of having some funding on the way.

Nagashima reflected a similar sentiment in regard to the emotions at play in the midst of the pandemic. 

“People don’t talk about it in business very much, but if you don’t have your team all marching towards the same thing, you’re not going to be able to work in a crisis,” she said.

In Food Shift’s case, the organization needed to adjust its expectations during this time in order to give everyone the physical space and emotional comfort they need.

Even during more normal times, food is tightly tied to human emotion. Our favorite dishes make us happy, a full belly makes us feel safe, a lack of meals makes us fearful. The coronavirus does discriminate — groups already marginalized within food systems are being hit the heaviest and are coping with a completely different reality compared to those who have the luxury and lunacy to panic-buy. 

Nonprofits, food banks and foundations alike are doing so much to prop up our food systems, but it’s important for individuals to get involved as well. Call a local food bank and inquire about donating. Contact a nonprofit you care about and ask how you can help. Ask your favorite restaurant if there’s something you can do in addition to ordering takeout. Many of us can survive comfortably right now, and it is imperative that we reach out to those who can’t.

Contact Erin Haar at [email protected].