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As the holidays approach, demand for food soars in the U.S.

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches millions of people are out of work and struggling to put food on the table. And as food insecurity soars across the nation due to COVID-19, the hardest hit are often children and people of color. Lisa Desjardins has the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now the first of a two-part look at the impact of COVID-19 in the country this Thanksgiving week.

    As Americans prepare to celebrate the holiday, millions of Americans are out of work and struggling to put food on the table.

    Lisa Desjardins takes a look at the reality of hunger in America and how the pandemic has made it worse.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A chilly morning, and a patient line of people outside this food bank in Arlington, Virginia, not far from Washington, all waiting their turn for fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs…

  • Woman:

    Chicken noodle?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    … canned goods, and, this week, a turkey.

  • Woman:

    Before corona came, this line was never this long. So, it's definitely bring more people out here.

  • Charles Meng:

    We try to address long-term food insecurity.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Charles Meng is the executive director of the Arlington Food Assistance Center, which has spent more than three decades helping feed a diverse population.

    But they have never seen this amount of need. Meng says that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand has soared 45 percent over last year.

  • Charles Meng:

    We're seeing new families, families that have never come to us before, families that are have been struggling to survive, and have been very successful at doing that.

    But, with COVID, with the loss of jobs, we're seeing those families return to us and return to a situation where they need us on a much more regular basis.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We saw that in those we met, like Mounir Oujri, who moved here in 2015 from Morocco. He's a food delivery driver. Out of work for some of the pandemic, he's now back to 50 hours a week.

    But with a new baby, a toddler, rent, and sending money back home, he says it's just not enough.

  • Mounir Oujri:

    I wake up every day, early. I have to go to work. Then I come late. So I didn't have enough time to my family. I don't have any day off. It's a little bit hard.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Katherine Horn told me she's come to rely on this food after quitting her job at a grocery store for fear of contracting COVID-19.

  • Katherine Horn:

    I just needed to come here and get food to make the rent, basically. And I have known about this place. I used to volunteer here. But…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You used to volunteer here, and now you're…

  • Katherine Horn:

    Now I'm like, I need it.

    You look, it's like everyone is strong and fit, hardworking people that just getting maybe a little bit gray now. We're like, oh, I'm going to take the assistance right now.

  • Alice Dade:

    There's a lot of us that lost our jobs.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Alice Dade is a cook who says, during COVID-19, her job has been touch-and-go.

  • Alice Dade:

    I'm not working right now because of my job. But we did open up, but we closed back down because my manager was positive for corona. So, we had to close our store back down.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We also saw some of the group that is the most affected by hunger in America, kids.

    Right now, by one estimate, one out of every four kids in America doesn't know where their next meal will come from. And that could rise. That figure comes from Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger relief organization.

    They estimate that, before the pandemic, 35 million Americans of all ages were already living with food insecurity, meaning they couldn't reliably provide enough quality food to everyone in their household.

    Now, because of COVID-19, Feeding America forecasts that will skyrocket to more than 50 million people, with the hardest-hit being children and communities of color.

  • Claire Babineaux-Fontenot:

    We're still right in the middle of a food crisis.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Claire Babineaux-Fontenot is the CEO of Feeding America.

  • Claire Babineaux-Fontenot:

    We're seeing an average increase across our network of about 60 percent. Now, embedded inside of that 60 percent would be some of our food banks that have seen as much as a 400 percent increase in need.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Wow.

  • Claire Babineaux-Fontenot:

    Yes.

    So, one example of that would be a recent example out of North Texas, where maybe your audience would have seen images of lines and lines of cars of people who were lined up for food distribution. We're continuing to see that happen.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Freelance photojournalist Brenda Ann Kenneally has seen that, too. She spent months working for The New York Times documenting American families struggling and coping with food insecurity during the pandemic.

    For some, it was an awakening.

  • Brenda Ann Kenneally:

    One family that I photographed in San Diego, an almost the last bastion of the middle class, the woman had been working in event planning and things that require social congregating.

    And so she lost her job. And she has three children. And so she started going to food pantries, first for herself, and then quickly realized that many of her neighbors did not have access to these resources.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Her photos also show the way these families come together, how teachers and communities pitched in to get everyone through.

  • Brenda Ann Kenneally:

    Every day, things emerge out of nothing. And I think that what — at Thanksgiving, how thankful I am that — and it hasn't been the case — have extra to give. Or even if I don't have extra, I certainly have enough to share. Even if it's not food on that day, it's in life.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Kenneally's photos show the mass mobilization to fight hunger during the pandemic, struggling families with food on the table.

    But federal aid for some programs will run out next month. She hopes this new awareness of those in need will lead to greater efforts to stamp out food insecurity once the pandemic ends.

    Back in Arlington, there is shared thanks and concern. Person after person was positive, thankful that places like this are trying to keep up with the tide of need.

  • Guilber Montan (through translator):

    Thank God this country is so great that it's welcomed us and helps to provide this support that's so important, food for the family.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But we also heard concern that things again are turning for the worse, and, for many here, a concern that this holiday season, long lines like this for food are again about to grow.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

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