Food Banks Are Bracing for Shortages and Higher Demand During COVID-19 Pandemic

The number of people visiting St. Mary's Food Bank in downtown Phoenix doubled from Monday to Tuesday, as concerns about the global coronavirus pandemic worsen.
The number of people visiting St. Mary's Food Bank in downtown Phoenix doubled from Monday to Tuesday, as concerns about the global coronavirus pandemic worsen. Amy Matthews/St. Mary’s Food Bank
On a typical day, about 500 people show up to the distribution center of St. Mary's Food Bank in downtown Phoenix.

Today, more than 1,000 did.

"It doubled overnight," said Jerry Brown, a spokesperson for St. Mary's. "I don't know what tomorrow will bring."

Staying away from each other has become an imperative during the global COVID-19 pandemic, with schools and businesses shutting down, people working from home, if they can work at all, and everyone stockpiling groceries, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper in anticipation of hard times.

Food banks and pantries are seeing precipitous drops as daily life as we know it grinds to a halt, and people hunker down at home in an effort to avoid contracting or spreading the virus.

Empty Shelves

Not only have donations — "rescues," in food-bank parlance — from major grocery stores dried to a trickle, but food drives that typically bring tens of thousands of pounds of food from the community and into the food bank have been put on hold indefinitely.

United Food Bank, which distributes food to people and pantries in the East Valley and eastern Arizona, gets about 5 percent of its food from grocery stores like Bashas', Fry's, Safeway, Albertsons, and Sprouts, typically, but it doesn't expect that to hold true now.

"Shelves are empty," said Tyson Nansel, a spokesperson for United Food Bank. "Really, we're thinking we're not going to get anything from the stores."

When all is normal, St. Mary's gets about 20 percent of its food supply from grocery stores — about 1 million pounds a month of eggs, milk, frozen foods, fruits and vegetables, and breads.

With everyone in panic mode, and groceries and other supplies flying off the shelves, "that has slowed to none, or almost none, over the last week," Brown said.

During the month of March, St. Mary's will usually have 35 to 45 food drives, held by companies or businesses. More than half of those have called to cancel, Brown said, and he expects that more companies have canceled but have not yet managed to call.

The supply of shelf-stable foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not been disrupted yet, Brown said, and neither have large-scale donations from distribution centers like Gatorade, or Shamrock Dairy, but that could change.

"This is kind of an evolving situation," Brown said. “They’re working hard to fill those orders to get food to the grocery stores, and the food banks are second tier on that,” he said of distribution centers.

United Food Bank receives the vast majority, about 80 percent, of its supply from the USDA, as part of a program under the Trump administration's $12 billion aid package to farmers to help cope with the trade war with China. About 10 percent of that goes to buying food from farmers, and much of that food will go to food banks, KJZZ reported in fall 2018.

Nansel didn't expect that to change for now, and said that United Food Bank actually had a huge supply of food from the USDA.

"We have a huge amount of that," he said. "And our understanding is, USDA will continue to deliver that food even during this crisis. That is good news for us."

More Clients, Fewer Volunteers

Volunteers, many of whom tend to be in the 60-plus age range that faces heightened risks if they are infected with the new coronavirus, are staying home from food banks.

The food bank representatives don't blame those volunteers, but being short-handed is one of the biggest challenges for the organizations.

St. Mary's typically gets 200 volunteers per day, six days a week, but that has dropped by about 75 percent, according to Brown.

"It's not just folks here locally," Brown added. When people come to Phoenix from elsewhere for conventions, they often do community service in large groups. "When they're not traveling and they're not having that convention, that's a group of 300 or 400 that cancels."

But as supplies shrink, demand is growing as the negative economic impact of curtailing quotidian activities continues to unfurl. Schools have closed, which means some parents need to stay home and take care of their children, potentially losing out on paychecks as a result.

Many restaurants have voluntarily closed or switched to takeout only, and on Tuesday, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego declared a state of emergency, requiring all bars to close by 8 p.m. and all restaurants to offer only delivery, take-out, or drive-thru. Major sporting events like spring training were canceled, leaving people who depend on those events for jobs and income hanging.

Food banks and pantries are changing the way they distribute food, in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

St. Mary's has moved its distribution to a parking lot, outdoors. People come and sign in, walk around with a volunteer and a cart to collect food, head to their car to transfer their food, and then the cart is sanitized and given to the next person, Brown said.

“We’re trying to make that as quick as a process as we can so people aren’t standing in line,” he said.

United Food Bank said that it typically serves about 450 households during its weekly Friday distribution. On Friday, March 13, it saw "a slight uptick," Nansel said.

Next Friday, though, it expects more than 1,200 families to come through. Nansel said that number came from the food bank's communications team perusing social media, promoting its services through the media, and its experiences during the #RedforEd strike in spring 2018.

Like St. Mary's, United Food Bank is ramping up hygiene and sanitation, forcing volunteers to wear gloves and sanitizing constantly. Asked whether the food bank had enough hand sanitizer and wipes, Nansel said with a chuckle, "Right now we do."

"But as I see us in the next few weeks, if we can't get any, we're going to be in trouble," he said.

United Food Bank is also struggling with a shortage of volunteers, saying that about half of the older volunteers were no longer coming — "and rightfully so," he added — and that all corporate groups that volunteer on a monthly or quarterly basis had canceled or postponed until the end of April.

But younger people were starting to fill in. On Tuesday morning, about eight students from Westwood High School had volunteered, and on Monday night, about 15 students from Campo Verde had.

Both Nansel and Brown urged people to donate money if they could, and for healthy volunteers who are not at risk of contracting or spreading the new coronavirus to help out. They directed interested people to their websites (United Food Bank and St. Mary's Food Bank).

Angie Rodgers, president and CEO of the Arizona Association of Food Banks, said that some food banks might be moving to drive-thru models, and that several food banks were looking into expanding deliveries for elderly people who rely on senior centers, now closed, for regular meals.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.