Food banks are closing and losing their workforce because of the coronavirus

Key Points
  • Food banks around the country are shuttering as they struggle to contend with the coronavirus and provide food relief to millions of people.
  • To deal with the challenges, food banks have put in place new protocols for handling and delivering food and maintaining a steady supply.
  • But these challenges have shifted much of the burden onto food banks themselves, leading to skyrocketing operating costs and uncertainty about how long they'll be able to respond.
People pick up food the Food Bank at the New York City mobile food pantry on the Barclays Center plaza on April 24, 2020 in the Brooklyn, New York.
Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images

Food banks are shuttering as they struggle to contend with the coronavirus and provide food relief to millions of people.

Volunteer help has dwindled because of social distancing and a fear of contracting and spreading the disease.

To deal with the challenges brought on by the outbreak, food banks have put in place new protocols for handling and delivering food and maintaining a steady supply. But these challenges have shifted much of the burden onto food banks themselves, leading to skyrocketing operating costs and uncertainty about how long they'll be able to respond.

"There's never enough money," said philanthropist Jean Shafiroff, a board member of the New York City Mission Society, which serves children and families living at or below the poverty level. 

Hunger, a persistent problem in the United States, affected more than 37 million people in 2018, according to a report from the Department of Agriculture. Households with children are more likely to experience food insecurity, according to Feeding America, the country's largest network of food banks. Often, food-insecure households rely on local food banks and other hunger relief organizations for support.

But front-line workers are preparing for more dire circumstances, as the government continues to push shelter-in-place warnings and as unemployment rates continue to rise. Several food banks told CNBC they anticipate an increase in the coming months in the number of people seeking sufficient food supply for themselves and their families.

The outbreak has spread to dozens of countries globally, with more than 3 million confirmed cases worldwide and over 211,522 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University on Tuesday. The U.S. has had at least 988,000 cases, including more than 56,000 deaths.

This story is based on conversations with six food banks in New York, New Jersey, California, Texas, and Washington, D.C., five areas that have seen some of the highest numbers of confirmed cases in the country. 

Unexpected challenges

Nearly a third of food pantries nationally have closed in recent weeks, according to the New York City Mission Society. 

Small food banks in New York City, which has become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, have closed down because "they haven't gotten food to distribute or they don't have the volunteers to man them," Shafiroff told CNBC. She added that many volunteers who have stopped their service are in their 60s and 70s, making them high-risk candidates to contract the most severe form of the virus. 

As small food banks shut down, people seek out help from larger organizations, like Food Bank for New York City, which gives out about 58 million meals a year. But even with its larger network of resources, the organization is still struggling, and "a number of its food pantries have closed," Shafiroff said. 

Around the country, other food banks have also reported closing pantries, which often help larger banks distribute food directly to communities in need. Food banks in California, New Jersey, Texas, and Washington, D.C., told CNBC they've witnessed the closure of food pantries or other distribution agencies and nonprofits they partner with to deliver food. 

Some food banks are seeing a decrease in the amount of food donated. The Capital Area Food Bank in Washington saw a 75% dip in donated food supply, CEO Radha Muthiah told CNBC. "It was just over the course of a week or so that we started to see these changes," Muthiah said. "There wasn't enough time to plan and anticipate this dramatic fall." 

Additionally, the D.C. food bank is going longer periods of time without receiving food. 

"What typically would take us eight to 12 days once we placed an order for a truckload of food can take up to eight weeks for our food supply to arrive," Muthiah said. Shelf-stable products that can be stored at room temperature like canned tuna, canned chicken and peanut butter can take the longest to arrive.

Demand has never been higher

Despite closures and shortages in staff and supply, the demand for food has never been higher, forcing food banks to quickly learn how to ramp up their efforts with fewer resources on hand than normal. 

"Our agencies have reported increases that range anywhere between 40 and 100% increase in individuals accessing emergency food service," said Natalie Caples, chief operations officer at the Central California Food Bank, which serves about 70,000 families a month. 

"We are really pushing our operations to the max right now. Every truck is going out full, essentially overweight," Caples said. 

The Central Texas Food Bank served about 50,000 people a week before social distancing guidelines were encouraged. As the virus gained traction in the United States in late winter, the food bank began serving an additional 22,000 new individuals. "And we're starting to see those numbers increase during the first few weeks of April," CEO Derrick Chubbs told CNBC. 

"What we normally see is a large number of the working poor — individuals who would be working in restaurants, bars, hotels, service workers — who depend on us to help them get through the last week of the month when they're typically trying to decide whether to pay for medicine for their kids, pay for utilities, or purchase food," Chubbs said. "Today, the likelihood of unemployment is higher. Those people who needed us once a month now need us every week."

Getting by

Food donations are down, which means food banks have to find alternate ways to procure the same stream of supply. They've turned to purchasing food themselves using larger portions of their budgets to make it happen. 

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey, the state's largest, lost about 800,000 pounds of donated food in March and April, CEO Carlos Rodriguez told CNBC. To make up the difference, the New Jersey food bank started buying food, spending an additional $945,000 a month since March. 

Monetary donations are on the rise. Multiple food banks told CNBC that financial donations from corporate supporters and foundations have been more generous lately, and individual monetary donations have not stopped despite an nationwide economic slowdown. 

"I think it's a testament to the generosity of the community," Rodriguez said. "Those that can donate clearly are."

Some food banks have found other revenue streams and opportunities that help make ends meet. 

The Capital Area Food Bank has formed partnerships with Bank of America and Mars Foundation, each donating $500,000 to help with the organization's efforts to provide food to the "newly food-insecure," Muthiah said. 

The Central California Food Bank has partnered with a local tech company to facilitate delivery for home-bound individuals like seniors and people with disabilities, according to Caples.

Customers who can pick up their food are also on the receiving end of major changes. To minimize contact with food, volunteers and staff members at food banks across the United States have begun boxing produce and shelf-stable items like pasta, rice and canned foods. 

Before the pandemic, pantries and banks often distributed their food following what is called the "client choice model," in which an individual can select from a wide variety of products. Typically, "it's set up like a farmers market," Muthiah said. "People would walk through, pick up what they like, linger a little bit, ask for a recipe card. All of that has come to an end to minimize exposures."

Other food banks now follow a similar model. The Central Texas Food Bank has staff and remaining volunteers build emergency food boxes that hold about 28 pounds of food. Families and individuals drive down to a distribution site and open their car trunks, allowing a worker to place one of the boxes with food in it while avoiding all unnecessary contact.

Looking ahead

This unusual demand will persist even when the coronavirus dies down, representatives from multiple food banks said. 

Food banks are foreseeing people struggling financially for a long time and hope to be able to continue to respond to their food needs as time goes on.

"We're now moving into what we call a new normal," Muthiah said.

"Even if there's a vaccine and the corona effects will start to tail off, the economic effects are here for some time to come. So we're looking at this as a situation we have to contend with, respond to in the next year."

So in recent weeks, food banks have had to balance double duty: rapidly adjust to new food distribution protocols to prioritize safety and avoid contamination while at the same time create a sustainable operation that lasts well beyond the coronavirus. 

In the near future, some larger food banks will likely not host or be a part of large fundraising events, said Shafiroff, a board member of seven nonprofit organizations in New York.

"It's just too chancey," she said.

Aside from raising money, there are lingering concerns on where the food will come from in the near future. 

Chubbs is worried about "what this is going to look like 45 to 60 days from now, when we are all — not just the retail grocers but all 200 food banks in the country — trying to procure food from the same vendors."

If those vendors cease to exist, this would add another yet another major hurdle.