'My kids are starving': Food banks and pantries see explosive demand in North Carolina as pandemic continues
Welcome to the Covid Economy, CNBC Make It's deep dive into how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting all areas of our lives, from food to housing, health care to small business. We're focusing on North Carolina, a swing state that has seen rapid economic growth — and growing inequality — since the last recession to learn how residents are weathering the economic consequences of this once-in-a-lifetime health crisis.
One of the most terrifying points of 2020 for Christian Sullins was not when she was unemployed as a result of pregnancy complications following the birth of her son in January. It was not when she was working as a waitress serving customers in March as the coronavirus pandemic began to rip through the U.S. And it was not when she lost her job just two weeks after returning to work when North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper issued state-wide stay-at-home orders.
No, the worst moment came when Sullins, a 32-year-old mother of two, ran out of food.
"Quite literally, we had nothing, nothing in our account. Five mouths to feed and no income. It was just a really bad time," Sullins says, adding that it was her, her husband, their two children and her elderly grandmother all living together at the time.
Sullins turned to Loaves & Fishes, a local food pantry network, which is currently operating temporary mobile pantries in the Charlotte, North Carolina area. "At that point, my kids were hungry, and I was just like, Listen, I just had a baby. I've been out of work for three weeks. I have no income. My kids are starving — I need food. I have to do something," she recalls telling an employee with NC Works, North Carolina's central system providing employment help and career tools.
"You can always make exceptions for yourself, saying I'll eat tomorrow. You're an adult, you can put it off. But what are you going to tell your child? It's not that easy," Sullins says.
After making the call, Sullins was approved to drive to a pantry location at a nearby church within a few days. Once there, Sullins says it was a stress-free process, with volunteers taking down her food preferences and dietary restrictions before loading boxes of supplies into her trunk.
"I was very fortunate in this situation, but there's a lot of people who didn't come out on top," Sullins says. "A lot of people with their pride get in the way. And I don't think that you should ever let your pride get in the way of saying, Hey, I need help."
'Demand went through the roof'
The food from Loaves & Fishes was essential for Sullins and her family as she waited for her unemployment payments. Within a month, she was back work ingas a server two days a week. And although Sullins also works for a non-profit, tutoring children with learning disabilities or who otherwise may be behind in school, the family is still struggling financially. This past weekend, Sullins worked an 8-hour shift at the restaurant and only made $3 in tips.
Unfortunately, that's not abnormal these days. "I've worked several days where I drive 40 minutes to work, and I don't make any tips," Sullins says. "People don't have money to tip."
So far, the family has managed to avoid going hungry again. Yet many other Americans are not as fortunate. About 10% of adults, or over 22 million Americans, say they sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat in the last seven days, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data, collected September 2-14, 2020. About 9% of North Carolina residents reported going without enough food within the past week, the survey found.
Looking at the year as a whole, national nonprofit food bank network Feeding America estimates that food insecurity will affect nearly 1 in 5 North Carolina residents, or 19.3%, in 2020. Food insecurity is expected to affect almost 29% of kids, up from 19% in the state in 2018. Overall, the state ties with Tennessee and West Virginia as ranking No. 10 in the country with the highest food insecurity rates projected for 2020, according to Feeding America's calculations.
Federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women (WIC) and the Infants and Children and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) are helping. In May, North Carolina increased SNAP benefits to the maximum available based on family size. A family of four, for example, was be eligible to receive a total of $646 a month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved North Carolina's request to extend those enhanced benefits through October.
Yet in some cases, those programs may not be an option or provide enough support. Food banks across the state are shouldering much of the increased demand. Food banks are generally responsible for sourcing, storing and delivering supplies to local food pantries. Food pantries then take that food and distribute it to the community directly.
"It's dramatically changed how we do business," says Mike Darrow, executive director of Feeding the Carolinas, an independent nonprofit that works with food banks throughout North and South Carolina. North Carolina's network of 10 food banks have a lot of experience mobilizing for natural disasters such as a hurricane, but nothing prepared them for the need locals faced during the pandemic, Darrow says.
When the state shut down at the end of March, food banks saw a 57% increase in demand, Darrow says. Seven months on, they are still serving an average of 30% to 40% more people than before the pandemic hit. And about a third of those receiving assistance now are new to the system.
Early in the pandemic, anywhere from 20% to 50% of the roughly 3,000 local, community partner food pantries and organizations shut down across the state. Those that remained open saw a huge spike in demand.
"Demand went through the roof," says Tina Postel, executive director of Loaves & Fishes. Last year, the organization's food pantries served over 80,000 individuals, half of whom were seniors and children. This year, Loaves & Fishes had already fed more people by the end of August than it had for all of 2019, Postel says. In a typical week, the organization is now feeding roughly 2,000 people.
To respond to the crisis, Loaves & Fishes closed its brick-and-mortar pantries, moving to mobile operations and making home food deliveries. Their old locations were staffed by volunteers, many of whom were elderly, Postel says, and they couldn't put them at risk.
To protect both workers and those seeking assistance, the organization moved from a shop-what-you-need model to providing pre-packed food boxes that contain a week's worth of groceries, Postel says. Now the pick-up system is basically contactless.
Hearts & Hands, an independent food pantry located just outside Charlotte, also saw a massive and sustained spike in demand, says co-founder Kenya Joseph. During the early weeks of the pandemic, the food pantry saw a 500% increase in demand, and it's stayed at that rate, she says. Because Hearts & Hands isn't affiliated with any area food banks, the pantry is able to follow their own more flexible guidelines on who can get assistance, including those who make more than the typical income maximums, as well as undocumented immigrants.
Currently, Hearts & Hands is open twice a week for curbside pickup by appointment. They also offer delivery for disabled, immunocompromised and other vulnerable populations. The food pantry serves about 100 families a week through curbside pick-up, with about 10 to 20 home deliveries per week.
Clients can come every two weeks for supplies, which includes food, personal care products, laundry detergent, diapers and even pet food. There are no income restrictions, but you do need a valid ID.
To meet demand, Hearts & Hands relies on community support. A soup kitchen a few towns over, for example, has offered to share their overage with Hearts & Hands, supplying people with freshly-prepared frozen dinners. The organization also receives 40 food boxes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm to Feed program, which provides fresh produce, meat and dairy products each week.
The opportunity to receive meat, as well as household goods, was the biggest draw for Jennifer Rodriguez. The 47-year-old restaurant manager has been out of work since March until she can have back surgery. She applied for disability benefits while she awaits her delayed surgery, but the family is primarily relying on her fiance's unemployment benefits after he was laid off as a warehouse manager during the pandemic. She started visiting Hearts & Hands during in April to help feed her family of seven.
"There's not really a lot out there" for families in need of support right now, Rodriguez says, adding there should be more resources for Americans, especially now during the pandemic. "People think it just affects the poor, but it doesn't," she says.
'You only can go so long at this pace'
The level of demand for food right now comes at a cost, Darrow says. Food banks are buying a majority of the food now, whereas in the past they primarily relied on donations for the bulk of their supply. In fact, the average food bank in North Carolina spent about $80,000 a month on food last year, Darrow says. Now they're spending an average of $1 million a month to purchase food.
"It's a challenge. We have stepped up to it and have done pretty well. But you only can go so long at this pace," Darrow says. Beyond the finances, he's worried about worker and volunteer burnout as well. "Right now we're OK. But when we look down the road, what is it going to look like?" he asks.
Nationwide, Feeding America estimates the organization is facing an 8 billion meal shortfall between now and June of next year.
"Covid has shaken up our world quite a bit," Postel says, adding that the current environment reminds her of what food pantries faced during the Great Recession. "We didn't see a peak in our client service numbers until 2012. We continued to grow and grow in the number of people needing our services until 2012, our biggest year," she says. Now, her organization is getting ready for the long haul.
"We are preparing — stockpiling food, stockpiling donations — because even after this contagion has gone, that doesn't mean that the lingering economic impacts of this crisis are going to be over and done with," Postel says. "We anticipate needing to be here for our community for not just the months to come, but the years to come."
For smaller food pantries like Hearts & Hands, Joseph says she's relying more than ever on community support. "Honestly, I'm not worried about meeting demand, but that's more faith than reality," she says. There are times when the money gets very thin, Joseph admits, but says that every single time that happens, all of a sudden someone cuts a check or she gets a major food donation.
Yet the current situation will probably require more than just faith, Darrow says. He'd like to see an expansion of SNAP benefits to help families in need. "That's just the most efficient way to get people food, because they can get it from the same place you and I get it from: the grocery store," Darrow says.
The latest relief package proposed by Democrats includes $10 billion to support a 15% increase to the maximum SNAP benefits through September 2021, as well as increased funding for other food and nutritional assistance programs. But whether Democrats and Republicans can come to an agreement and pass any relief legislation remains to be seen. The Republican-led stimulus package proposed last month did not include any extra funding for SNAP benefits, although the so-called "skinny bill" did include $20 billion in aid to farmers.
In the meantime, families like Rodriguez's will need to continue to rely on food banks to help them get by. "People tend to look down on food pantries and the people who go there," Rodriguez says. "But they've been the biggest blessing, and they've made a huge difference."
CNBC Make It will be publishing more stories in this series each week in October. If you're interested in sharing your experiences related to the pandemic, please email senior reporter Megan Leonhardt at firstname.lastname@example.org.