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Food Banks Race to Meet COVID-19 Demand

Bags of prepared food for pickup
St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Richmond operates a food pantry every Thursday. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

*VPM intern Alexander Broening reported this story. 

Food banks in Virginia are ramping up their efforts as the COVID-19 pandemic puts more people out of work. Feed More, a nonprofit headquartered in Richmond, has managed to increase its production despite initial setbacks.

Many Feed More volunteers were older, and consequently more vulnerable to the coronavirus., The food bank had to reorganize to replace them, but their efforts paid off. In the last month, Feed More has seen an influx of more than 500 new volunteers – allowing them to continue their full operations.

Since the stay-at-home order began, Feed More says about 35% more people are using services supported by its distribution center and food bank. The group supports nearly 300 food pantries and kitchens in 34 counties and cities across the commonwealth. Feed More CEO Doug Pick says the 50 largest food pantries have “requested either double the amount of distributions, or double the amount of food we provide them.”

Feed More has also altered its operations to reduce the possibility of spreading COVID-19. Instead of going into the food bank for groceries and supplies, people have to pick-up what they need at a drive through.To further reduce the number of physical interactions, Feed More’s Meals on Wheels program is now delivering frozen meals only once a week to people who are homebound. 

Feed More runs programs to deliver food throughout their service area, but Pick says those programs are expensive and can’t serve everyone in need. In rural communities, food pantries face the same problem on an even greater scale. Lack of funding and physical distance can make it impossible to deliver food, says Robert Thaxton, president of Project: Care-For in Clarkesville.

Being in an area where groceries stores are few and far between, and public transportation lacking, Thaxton says families sometimes struggle to get to the food pantry. But something he’s noticed is more and more people carpooling to distribution sites.  

“We have a lot of people that come with other folks - we have a car with four families in it,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot more of that than before, where we have two or three families in one car.”

While distribution has scaled up, many food banks are worried about their ability to sustain these heightened levels of support. 

Eddie Oliver, executive director of the Virginia Federation of Food Banks, is especially concerned about supplies this coming August and September. 

“We have a long road to recovery in the economy, when some of these federal benefits dry up,” Oliver said. “We’re really worried about the fall - we think we could see a spike in need, but we’re expecting to continue at at least the sustained levels we’re at now.” 

That’s because economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic may not become clear until the fall. As unemployment rises, and people run out of money, Oliver says more and more will likely turn to food assistance programs. 

Feed More estimates that 400,000 new Virginians will become food-insecure because of the pandemic, including 90,000 in Richmond. Oliver says the increase will put a strain on the food assistance network across the state. 

Food banks depend on partnerships with meat manufacturing companies to supply protein. While meat processing plants have been ordered to stay open by the White House, Oliver says there are concerns about supplies since production has slowed down because of the pandemic. 

If you want to help food banks in your area, visit www.vafoodbanks.org for a full list of groups accepting donations.

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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