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Food bank CEO: Our inventory is at its lowest in decades
02:40 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The economy is starting to pick up as coronavirus restrictions are lifted, but millions of Americans are still jobless and unable to afford food.

Although US employment grew by 2.5 million in May, roughly 21 million Americans remain out of work, and many are still in need of assistance – including some who have never had to turn to a food pantry before.

The Capital Area Food Bank in Washington DC is seeing up to four times as many people come to its partner agencies since the coronavirus pandemic hit a few months ago.

“There are many individuals who are not feeling the benefits and who are looking at some of these indicators and saying, ‘That’s not affecting me right now,’” said Radha Muthiah, the food bank’s CEO, who is particularly worried about senior citizens and black residents in her community. “There’s a concern that this is not just a one or two or three months scenario, but they could be in this for a much longer, longer term.”

A volunteer wearing a protective mask and gloves boxes food items as a part of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program at the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington in April 2020.

The outbreak has proved challenging for the nation’s food charities, with Americans lining up in their cars for miles to pick up boxes of free groceries. Food banks nationwide are serving almost 60% more clients, on average, compared to last year, according to Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks across the US. About four in 10 are new customers.

Many newly employed people are coming to Mission of Love Charities’ food pantry in Maryland for the first time, said Deb Martinez, director of the group, one of Capital Area Food Bank’s partners.

“They’re worried about their rent. They’re worried about their housing and the mortgage. They’re worried about their children,” she said. “I have never seen this. I don’t think most of America has seen this.”

The gap between need and supply over the next year is expected to be as high as 8 billion meals, according to Feeding America.

Donations fell as need spiked

At Capital Area Food Bank, donations from food retailers plummeted by 75% just as demand skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, Muthiah said. The non-profit has had to purchase up to $2 million of food each month during the pandemic – and it expects to continue having to shell out around that much for several months to come.

It is looking at leasing additional warehouse and freezer space in case there is a resurgence of the virus in the fall and winter.

Congress allocated $850 million to boost The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides supplies to food banks, in two coronavirus relief packages in March. But so far, only $377 million has been distributed, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

And the products are only expected to arrive at food banks this month, in part because vendors are low on supplies, said Carrie Calvert, vice president for government relations, agriculture and nutrition at Feeding America.

Food banks are also receiving fresh produce, dairy and meat through the $3 billion Farmers to Families Food Box Program, another part of Congress’ coronavirus response. More than 5 million food boxes have been distributed, though the effort has run into issues with some contractors, and some food banks have yet to receive any supplies.

However, food banks and pantries alone cannot help all those coming to their doors for food, those on the front lines say.

“Taken together, all of it is not projected to meet enough of the demand we’re seeing and expect to see,” Calvert said of the federal efforts.

Lobbying Congress for more aid

Feeding America and other advocates have pushed Congress to increase the maximum food stamp benefit, which they argue will better address the spike in food insecurity and serve as an economic stimulus.

During the 2008 recession, lawmakers temporarily raised the maximum monthly benefit of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as food stamps are formally known, by 13.6%. The funds were quickly spent, boosting economic growth and employment, experts found.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have unsuccessfully pushed for a 15% increase in the maximum food stamp benefit in the coronavirus packages this year. It is included in the latest House relief bill, the Heroes Act, but that has yet to go anywhere in the Republican-led Senate.

A larger food stamp benefit can mean a lot to a family that can’t afford to put enough food on the table.

“If that family of four gets that extra $100, they can probably go out and purchase, gosh, 50, 60 meals with that,” Muthiah said.