Amid economic crisis, food banks are struggling to keep all the newly hungry fed

With unemployment soaring, the COVID-19 outbreak is taking a staggering toll on workers. Food banks are ramping up their services to meet the rising demand, even as donations, volunteers and supplies are limited. Meanwhile, organizations worry about keeping their own workers safe from the virus. PBS Newshour reports.

Judy Woodruff: With unemployment soaring, the COVID-19 outbreak is taking a staggering toll on workers.

As Stephanie Sy reports, food banks are ramping up their services to meet demand, even as donations, volunteers, and supplies are pressed.

Her story is also part of our Chasing the Dream series on poverty and opportunity in America

Matthew: So, I’m in this line waiting. There’s over 2,000 people in this line at the United Food Bank in Mesa, Arizona.

Stephanie Sy: Matthew, who preferred we not use his last name, was in a long cue leading to the parking lot of the Mesa Convention Center, waiting for a week’s supply of food.

Matthew: I’m here because I’m one of those gig workers. Basically, the business has dried up. There’s no money to be made. I was down to like $4.00 in my bank account and no food. Car payment’s late. Everything’s late. So, to me, it’s worth it waiting for probably been over an hour already for this — for this food bag.

So, this is what they gave. It’s pretty good, man.

Stephanie Sy: The distribution line is drive-through only, one of many precautions Dave Richins, president and CEO of United Food Bank, has put in place in the wake of the outbreak.

Dave Richins: We’re going to start temperature readings on every volunteer that comes. Anybody that’s not in the — a safe temperature range is going to be sent home. We just can’t risk it.

Stephanie Sy: Richins told us by Skype they are serving four times as many people as usual, like many states, enlisting the help of the National Guard.

Dave Richins: So we’re seeing the Uber driver that has no more fares to pick up. We’re seeing the maid at the local hotel that is not working near as much as she used to.

We’re just seeing a lot more of the recently unemployed in our lines. But the elderly are still there. And so making sure those populations stay separated and safe is important. But the thing that breaks your heart the most are the families with the kids.

Stephanie Sy: The food bank saw a lot of new faces.

Sharla Begay: I’m a student. I just finished at Pima. Right now, they’re not hiring for dental assistants, so I’m just on hold because of the whole thing that is going on. So I heard on the news that — I have two kids, so this would really help out, help me out a lot.

Stephanie Sy: Heidi Nitti was getting food for other people.

Heidi Nitti: I’m in need to help people, the disabled, and also people that are retired that can’t get out that are sick. And, mostly, all this food is going to people on my property where I live.

Stephanie Sy: From Los Angeles, California, to Duquesne, Pennsylvania, across the country, cars waiting in mile-long lines to receive food packages.

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, food banks have seen demand increase by as much as 50 percent in some places, says Claire Babineaux Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, the largest hunger relief organization in the U.S.

Claire Banineaux-Fontenot: We have seen this before, just never at this magnitude.

The average American doesn’t have $400 in cash available to deal with a financial emergency. People started losing their jobs. People started missing checks. Most people in this country are one check away from being in need of some new source of food and other things that are necessary for sustenance.

Stephanie Sy: What about the impacts on all of the many people that volunteer their time at food banks, many of whom I would guess are elderly?

Claire Banineaux-Fontenot: Our volunteers are inordinately elderly. Consequently, we have a bit of a perfect storm going on right now.

So we have increase in demand, decrease in supply, and a significant decrease in our volunteer work force. Some of that decrease in work force is us wanting to look out for the safety of the people where they are trying to help us, and they’re particularly vulnerable.

Man: Folks, we are sold out of paper towels and toilet paper.

Stephanie Sy: The mad rush for supplies as families prepared and stockpiled for home lockdowns had the knock-on effect of limiting donations from major retail grocers that food banks rely on.

President Donald Trump: All right, thank you, all.

Stephanie Sy: The recently passed CARES Act directs more federal funds to food insecurity, including $300 million for purchases for the Emergency Food Assistance Program.

But Babineaux-Fontenot is worried about the needs gap. And her organization issued a statement criticizing lawmakers for not increasing SNAP benefits in the act, saying they “missed an opportunity to help families facing hunger, and, unfortunately, food banks will bear the burden of this oversight.”

Claire Banineaux-Fontenot: It’s not enough, though.

But we have made some good progress. Our data shows us that hole is a lot bigger than the additional supplemental food that we’re going to be able to rely on from the federal government. With contracting amount of retail donations, with a bigger population of people in need, we’re having to go out and purchase more food, and we’re competing in the marketplace in a scarcity.

Stephanie Sy: Back at the United Food Bank, Dave Richins says supplies from the USDA will help him keep things going at this pace through August.

Dave Richins: As long as we continue to get trucks coming to our warehouse and delivering food, we can continue to get to the public. There’s nothing that’s going to stop us from filling our mission. I will keep serving until the last can of food is on the shelf at the food bank.

Stephanie Sy: His biggest worry isn’t keeping the food supplies coming, but keeping his own employees and volunteers safe from the spreading virus.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Stephanie Sy in Phoenix.