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For Hungry Americans Across The Country, Food Insecurity Crisis Deepens

Food is loaded as drivers in their vehicles wait in line at a food distribution hosted by the Los Angeles Food Bank on Dec. 4 in Hacienda Heights, Calif.
Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images
Food is loaded as drivers in their vehicles wait in line at a food distribution hosted by the Los Angeles Food Bank on Dec. 4 in Hacienda Heights, Calif.

Nine months into the pandemic, and lines outside food pantries are still a common sight around the country: families waiting in row after row of cars, snaking as far as the eye can see.

Last year, more than 35 million people experienced food insecurity. But because of the pandemic, that number could be as high as 50 million for this year, according to the hunger relief organization Feeding America.

And with multiple federal aid programs set to run out soon, many pantries fear they will run out of food, too.

The crisis is acute, and it's nationwide, says Kate Leone, Feeding America's chief government relations officer.

Since the pandemic started, an average of 60% more people have been seeking help from the organization's network of 200 food banks, Leone says, with one in two children facing hunger in some counties.

Among their clients, Leone says, are former volunteers and even donors.

"We think that about four in 10 of the people we're serving now are new to needing charitable assistance," Leone says.

That's been the case in New Orleans, where the tourism based-economy has been hard hit, says Emily Slazer, food sourcing manager of the city's Second Harvest Food Bank.

"We're seeing clients who are sleeping in their cars, arriving on site at 2, 3 in the morning, sometimes even the night before," she says. "It's just a stunning and heartbreaking visual to see so many members of our community who are hungry."

In excerpts from their interview with All Things Considered, Leone and Slazer discuss the challenges food banks currently face, the reluctance people may feel in seeking assistance and what the government should do to address the crisis.

What are some of the specific challenges Second Harvest Food Bank is struggling with now?

Slazer: Food drives are definitely down because people are not gathering in offices and schools and other places where community food drives would be organized. We also have a lot of restaurant supply donors that have had to really reduce their business. ... We also have a few government programs that are going to be ending in the next few weeks that are going to leave a really big hole that we don't have an easy way to fill. ...

Also, getting the types of pantry staples donated that our clients need is really hard right now because at times during this pandemic, it's been hard to buy a can of green beans at your local grocery store, much less get those green beans donated to the food bank. So it has a domino effect of how challenges start to pile up and the food supply is impacted.

What does the government need to do to address this crisis right now?

Leone: The No. 1 thing they can do is pass a new economic relief package. The first two packages that passed were very helpful in terms of providing flexibilities in order to be able to continue to deliver meals to schoolchildren who are missing that critical source of nutrition.

But right now, the most efficient and effective way the federal government can respond to the food insecurity crisis is to increase SNAP benefits. So SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps, allows people to use an electronic benefit card right in their grocery stores. So it has that extra impact of having people spending money locally, which is going to create jobs. ... It really is the most efficient way to deliver benefits.

Feeding America ... is the largest response to hunger in the charitable sector. But for every one meal our network provides, SNAP provides nine. So there really is nothing that can compare to the scope of assistance that we can provide to people than the SNAP program. So really increasing those benefits just a little bit during this time when grocery prices are spiking — and benefits aren't going as far — would go a long way to helping people everywhere right now.

There are so many people who are right now experiencing food insecurity, homelessness for the first time in their lives. Is there anything that you would like to say to those people?

Slazer: Food is a basic human right and hunger supersedes so many things. It makes it impossible to participate in classes, impossible to participate in work tasks. Being hungry is an emergency and everyone deserves to have that need met. And it is difficult to be accessing a service for the first time, but also right now so many people from so many backgrounds are facing the same problems. So I would hope that, particularly the new clients that we're seeing or people who are needing the help now but just not sure if they're ready to access services, I just hope that they would understand and hope that they would hear that no one needs to justify getting help or explain why they're hungry, because what's much more important than that is how can we offer them help.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.