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How Food Banks Succeeded and What They Need Now

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The people who run America’s charitable food banks take pride in what they’ve accomplished over the past year, and the numbers justify it: They distributed roughly 50 percent more food in 2020 compared with 2019, a considerable portion to first-time visitors. They served millions of people even as they dealt with supply-chain interruptions and health risks for their volunteers and employees.

But they also say they are tired, and worried about donor fatigue and long-term stability. The pandemic made clear that food banks work best as a complement to, not a replacement for, government assistance. Yet it was December before Congress increased its main program for combating hunger, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A newly created Department of Agriculture program brought a windfall of food — but many logistical headaches.

The private-public partnership worked wonders in fighting hunger this past year, but has hardly erased the need.

Chicago’s experience is instructive.

In the earliest days of the stay-at-home order last March, the leaders of the city’s main food bank, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, met with the mayor’s office to discuss a crisis that would be measured in months, not weeks.

“They were telling us, ‘This is going to be long,’” Kate Maehr, the depository’s director, recalled. That prospect shaped the food bank’s strategy.

As the city shed jobs and thousands fell into need, Ms. Maehr and her team made a crucial decision: They would keep open its network of more than 700 food pantries and soup kitchens across Cook County, Ill., rather than shift to large food distribution sites, as some places had.

It would not be easy.

Food banks resemble nonprofit versions of food wholesalers. They source, store and supply food to local partners like food pantries, free or without profit. Most charitable food distributed in Chicago flows through the Greater Chicago Food Depository and is funded primarily through private donations.

To help its partners, the food bank began conducting webinars on things like how to configure an outdoor food pantry. It provided masks and hand sanitizer, sometimes delivered on separate trucks from the food because of safety regulations.

It also extended millions of dollars in grants, supported by government funding and private donations, for food-storage infrastructure. “Everything from new refrigerators, to the electrician to come and rewire your church because the new refrigerator is going to require more energy, to additional money to pay the additional electric bill because you are now running more refrigerators,” Ms. Maehr said.

As the food bank went from serving roughly 300,000 people per month before the pandemic to nearly 700,000 at its June peak, scaling up operations remained a challenge. Chicago’s poverty rate is nearly double the national average, and the increased need for charitable food had never really declined after the last recession.

“We already had people who were struggling with food security, who were probably one paycheck away, and they lost that paycheck,” Ms. Maehr said. “And then, more people lost paychecks.”

Feeding America, a network of 200 of the nation’s food banks including the one in Chicago, reports that from April to December 2020, 6.1 billion pounds of food were distributed, compared with 4.0 billion during the same period in 2019. Early in the outbreak, one-third of people seeking charitable food were doing so for the first time.

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Weekly census surveys consistently report more than 10 percent of adults — and more than 15 percent of those in households with children — sometimes or often do not have enough to eat. For Black and Hispanic families, those rates are nearly 25 percent. That’s more than three times the rates reported in a similar question about hunger in a 2019 survey.

The Chicago food bank, like others, had to buy more food. Prices were rising, and it was also spending more on canned or individually packaged beans and grains. Pre-pandemic, the food bank would have bought these in bulk and had volunteers repackage them, but volunteers were busy assembling food boxes that could be handed out with less contact. The food bank’s budget for food purchases this fiscal year, July 2020 through June 2021, is about $30 million, twice the previous year.

This program has provided an astounding amount of food to nonprofits — more than 152 million boxes nationally to date. From July to November, the Chicago food bank received more than twice as much food from the federal government as it did in 2019, making up 57 percent of all food received.

Instead of using existing channels, the U.S.D.A. set up a new contracting system to support food distributors whose private-sector work had been disrupted. Those contractors were responsible for sourcing the fresh produce, meat and dairy products; packing up large boxes (sometimes as much as 40 pounds of food); and delivering them to food banks and other nonprofit distribution sites. The idea was to remove the need for cold storage and extra labor.

But some contracting drivers weren’t used to such tight delivery windows, to working with charities or to making deliveries to sites without loading docks. In Chicago, when contractors couldn’t make the drop-offs, they would bring the boxes to the food bank, whose drivers would then make the deliveries themselves.

Keeping up with all of the extra food strained the food bank’s drivers and warehouse staff, particularly with Covid safety restrictions. Drivers no longer made deliveries with a partner. The number of workers picking food from each warehouse aisle had to be reduced. Food distributions moved outdoors, which became harder when winter hit.

Frequently Asked Questions About the New Stimulus Package

The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.

Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more

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This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.

There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.

The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.

The food bank’s benefits outreach team was also stretched thin. The number of calls to its hotline, set up to guide people seeking access to other government assistance programs, nearly tripled from March to December compared with the same period in 2019.

“People turn on their televisions and see food bankers and food banks meeting the need,” said Katie Fitzgerald, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Feeding America. “But what I think people don’t realize is that these men and women, who are either staff or the limited volunteer corps that we have, are really first responders, and they’re exhausted.”

Getting free food to needy people is so labor-intensive that it raises a question: Wouldn’t it be easier to give them money and let them buy their own food?

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SNAP is the government’s largest anti-hunger program. To qualify, households must have net income that places them at or below the poverty line, with other assets taken into account. Recipients get monthly benefits, known as food stamps, on a debit card for use at retail stores.

Food bank officials say SNAP’s reliance on the existing grocery system makes it more efficient than charitable food, and simpler for recipients. Before the pandemic, SNAP provided roughly nine meals for every one provided by food banks.

Ms. Maehr describes SNAP as “almost tailor-made for a crisis like this,” adding, “If you take the pressure off the charitable system by connecting people to SNAP, then the charitable system can respond to the needs of people who don’t qualify.”

Last year that pressure did not lift as quickly, or as much, as food bank officials were urging.

In its first Covid-19 relief bill last March, Congress expanded SNAP benefits for many families — but not for the 40 percent of recipients already receiving the maximum amount. In subsequent relief bills, Republicans blocked an increase on the ground it could lead to a permanent expansion.

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Only at the end of December, after continued pressure from Feeding America and other advocates, did Congress pass a 15 percent benefit increase for all SNAP recipients through June 2021. Combined with an annual cost-of-living increase, that amounts to an extra $30 to $40 per month per person, depending on family size, on top of what had been the maximum: $194 for a single adult, $646 for a family of four.

Nationally, SNAP caseloads increased by more than 15 percent in the first three months of the pandemic, to 43 million people from 37 million. They fell slightly, to 41.5 million, by November, the latest month for which data is available.

The latest relief bill passed by Democrats in Congress, a $1.9 trillion plan from the Biden administration, includes the extension of increased SNAP benefits through September and additional funds for commodity purchases. Stacy Dean, President Biden’s new deputy under secretary of food, nutrition and consumer services at U.S.D.A., said many other parts of the package would also help reduce food insecurity.

“If we provide rental assistance and prevent evictions, if we increase unemployment insurance and make it more available to the poorest households, if we re-up stimulus payments to the poorest households, if we do cash assistance,” she said, “all of those things help stabilize families’ financial circumstances, ideally, so that they do not fall into the crisis that is hunger.”

Carrie Calvert, vice president for government relations at Feeding America, says that while the package addresses immediate needs, more will be required to sustain food banks while the economy recovers. Her network has called for tying the SNAP benefit increase to economic circumstances and for additional funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, a U.S.D.A. program predating the pandemic that buys agricultural products for food banks.

In February, the Chicago food bank announced an additional $2.6 million in grants for its partner food pantries. The money will buy cold storage, delivery equipment and other infrastructure.

Still, its leaders worry that donor support could dry up as the economic effects of the pandemic drag on. “We need these food pantries to be strong, not just during the Covid crisis, but six months, 12 months, 18 months from now, when people are still struggling with food insecurity,” Ms. Maehr said.

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