Food Pantry Pandemic Problematic (Op-Ed)

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Abstract 

Food Insecurity is a term used to describe reduced food quantity or quality due to economic constraints. There is a strange dynamic associated with this word as it is both completely inexcusable as well as completely unpredictable. The U.S. easily produces enough food for each of its citizens to consume 3,000 nutritious calories a day, yet food Insecurity is a worldwide issue that affects nearly every single community. 

For over 100 years, food pantries have been a valuable resource for food insecure households. In the past 40 years, Feeding America ® has grown an entire distribution infrastructure in the U.S. to support over 200 food banks. The Mid-Ohio Food Collective, operating with Feeding America, stores and distributes food to over 650 food pantries and meal programs in the area. The system of food insecurity has many stakeholders and relationships. Like all complex systems, there are issues, and therefore also   opportunities. This article hopes to explore these characteristics as well as the short- and long-term effects of the coronavirus. For both national and local models, food insecurity is a constant battle that requires constant attention and improvement.  

Context 

The coronavirus was declared a global pandemic by WHO (World Health Organization) on March 11, 2020. In America, this was followed by millions of lost jobs for both white-collar and blue-collar families. As a result, food insecurity also heavily increased. This is a pivotal time for food pantries and other federal meal programs as they navigate a wide range of changes to support their highest demand in over 30 years. 

The federal government’s largest response to COVID-19 has been … This has helped a large population of affected households, sometimes enough to reduce food insecurity in some areas; however, many families still struggle with consistently putting food on the table. Additionally, the federal government has made no progress with increasing SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which is the country’s main alleviator of hunger for eligible families. As a result, more strain has been put on food pantries to fill the desired food gap. 

In addition to a sharp increase in clients, the federal government has asked food pantries to loosen many of their standard restrictions for service. For example, food pantries now double the frequency customers can visit. Most food pantries have also increased the amount of food they give to each customer. Lastly, all food pantries doubled the income minimum per household to about 230% above the poverty line. All these changes contribute to food pantries increased demand since March. 

The supply chain was affected numerous ways from the virus as well. When restaurants closed, commercial farms had an excess of food which would ultimately be wasted. The most common of these are milk, eggs and potatoes. Consequently, many food pantries have received an uptick in these donations to give to its customers. The distribution system for food has also been exposed of potential flaws by the virus. Hoarding and inconsistent grocery shopping from the average consumer have created gaps of stock for multiple stores. Many of these stores’ excess food ship to food banks or even directly to food pantries. Food shipments from these stores have therefore become more unpredictable. 

In Franklin County, the total population of food-insecure individuals has been estimated to increase by about 36%. For children, where food security tends to be a more common issue, the number has increased by 49%. Although a substantial portion of these people will finish the year with incomes well above the poverty line, it is important that these families are still supported by food pantries. Unstable income is a very large contributor to food insecurity. With the pandemic, many households have become very unstable and will seek food pantries as a local resource. 

Stakeholders 

There are many stakeholders that interact with the food pantry system. The people/businesses mentioned will not be an exhaustive list, nor will the connections be fully analyzed. To best discuss who is involved, I will follow the life cycle of food from crop to crap. 

It starts at a farm, either commercial or local. Farmers produce a variety of crops for the season. These farmers partner with distributors that bring the food to various restaurants and grocery stores. Food banks normally have contracts with farms to buy at a discounted rate whatever cannot be initially sold to these businesses. 

When the food gets shipped to large retail stores, it passes through an initial inspection. Here, the best foods get put on display first. It is these other foods that normally make its way to food pantries. Some people refer to it as grade-b foods, but this tends to be misconceived by the average person. All the food shipped to food pantries are of good quality that most people would happily pay for in a store. With regards to fresh produce, the best grade-b foods are better than the worst grade-a foods. Grocery stores that have contracts with their local foodbank receive tax reductions as incentive for their effort. In response to COVID-19, many more stores have joined the system to deliver to local food pantries. 

Restaurants can also play a role in the food pantry system. Organizations like Food Rescue USA partner with local restraints to freeze their leftover foods. Volunteer drivers then deliver this to nearby food pantries. Restaurants and other commercial kitchens are estimated to be responsible for over twenty-five percent of all food waste in America, but only a small portion of these businesses support local food banks. That said, there can be issues of food safety when restaurants are involved. 

As you can see, the vast majority of a food pantry ‘s fresh produce is benefited from the natural would-be food waste that occurs in the market. For as long as these inefficiencies are occurring, food pantries will have plenty of supplies. However, it is important to note that it is preferred that there be no extra food in the first place. Additionally, it would be disrespectful to view food pantries as serving scraps or would-be waste. Food safety and food quality are important to all food pantries. A good rule of thumb for most volunteers is that if they would not buy it in the stores themselves, then they should not be giving it to their customers. 

Food Pantries consist of two main groups: the directors and the volunteers. Directors normally have a paid position in the food pantry. They have food safety training and serve as the main communicator with their local food bank. They supervise the volunteers and carry most of the responsibility of serving their customers. 

Directors serve as the bridge between shifts, but volunteers are the muscle of a food pantry. Most regular volunteers are retired, which is why they can serve during normal business hours of the day. Some of these volunteers have reliably served for over a decade at their food pantry. Some volunteers arrive early to shifts and get to work. The best volunteers serve because they feel a purpose in helping to serve the food secure households in their community. They are the most crucial stakeholders for a successful food pantry. 

If the volunteers are the muscle, then the customers are the bones. Without, clients to serve, there would not be a need for food pantries in the first place. There are a variety of different ways to categorize clients, but the most crucial dichotomy is between the regulars and the new customers. Regular clients understand the system and appreciate the service. They come at consistent times in the week, partly so that they can build relationships with the same volunteers. Along with this relationship comes the responsibility of privacy for the client. Good volunteers take this rule seriously, especially in smaller communities. 

New clients are different. They are often unfamiliar with the system. Naturally, they require more time to be served. They also are more likely to carry the feeling of shame and embarrassment when visiting. New households can turn into regulars, but a sizable portion of them do not return. As mentioned earlier, unstable situations can quickly lead to food insecurity for ow-income households. It is understood that many of these new customers are only temporary. Food pantries are used to a steady stream of these new clients, but the coronavirus greatly increased this number. Some areas saw as much as 8 times the normal number of new customers during the first month of the pandemic in the U.S. 

And lastly, the rest of the community can be a valuable stakeholder. Especially in rural areas, communities can be extremely helpful for food pantries. Food drives can have varying levels of success because lots of food safety restrictions can cause lots of food to be thrown away; however, a caring community can have a strong impact. The food pantry in Winchester was able to raise $96,000 for their food pantry in response to COVID-19. From donations alone, they are able to support their clients with plenty of canned foods. Additionally, hygiene products are not easily obtained by food pantries, which community donations can be a strong provider for. The community can also be a helpful source for temporary volunteering. 

Interrelationships 

I will argue that the most important relationship in this entire system is between the volunteers and the customers. A positive connection between these stakeholders can be extremely heart-warming and purposeful. Strengthening this relationship often creates a positive feedback loop of more reliable attendance from the customer and more reliable volunteering from the server. 

Another relationship that is really important is the food pantry manager to the food bank. In many circumstances, it is this person’s role to advocate for its customers when talking with upper management. The more food banks understand about their food pantries’ needs, the better they can serve their communities. This could mean changing the types of food that is for sale, or keeping grocery stores accountable for fulfilling their deliveries. 

Issues/Opportunities 

COVID-19 has created a variety of issues and opportunities for food pantries. First, social distancing rules have forced many food pantries to completely change their system. Most pantries now serve pre-filled bags to their customers to reduce the possible spread of germs. The issue with this system is that it does not give the client any choice in foods. This causes an unknown amount of food waste in their household. Additionally, volunteers are not able to interact with clients as much, which disrupts the most valuable relationship in the entire system. 

Some opportunities from COVID-19 include an increase of awareness from the community and the federal government. The sharp increase in new families has also helped to limit the taboo feeling of visiting a food pantry. Additionally, the pre-filled bag system is about twice as fast as the traditional, walk-through method. This helps to serve more people, which has recently become a necessity in many places. Lastly, many food pantries have been forced to remain flexible in these uncertain times. This offers lots of opportunity for changing the system in the long-term. 

There are a variety of other issues that seem pandemic specific. For example, what procedures are in place if one of the volunteers tests positive for COVID-19? Additionally, there has been a sharp decline of regular volunteers as many retired people do not feel safe to leave the house. Lastly, there is an unknown timeline of how long things will be like this. As of right now, the vast majority of food stakeholders consider all these recent changes to be temporary. When social-distancing restrictions are lifted, food pantries intend to completely revert to their original system. Other pantries will take advantage of this change to become implement a choice-based system for the customer. 

It is uncertain what the long-term effects the coronavirus will have on food pantries in America. Nevertheless, food insecurity will continue to be a problem in nearly every community around the world. Hopefully, the coronavirus will help to raise awareness to some of the previously mentioned issues and stakeholders across the board can benefit from the overall changes.