Foods banks struggle to meet demand as COVID-19 impacts more jobs

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 2,124 views 

Northwest Arkansas Food Bank employees pack boxes of toilet paper, paper towel and hand sanitizer that was donated to the bank. The care packages were delivered to senior centers and populations at risk.

Arkansas food banks report double-digit increases in distributions in recent weeks as the unemployment rate rises. Tracy Engel, director for the River Valley Regional Food Bank in Fort Smith, said distributions are up 48% in March compared to a year ago and donations are down, leaving a gap that is hard to fill.

Engel said corporate partners like Tyson Foods and Walmart are good with chicken and fresh produce donations, but finding pantry items like canned spaghetti sauce or pancake mix and syrup is nearly impossible. Engel and her staff of 11 recently gave out 73,000 pounds of chicken donated by Tyson Foods and fresh produce to consumers who drove up to the facility located on Zero Street in Fort Smith. That distribution was a 20-pound case of frozen chicken and a case of bananas or tomatoes.

“We had cars lined up for 2 miles, six rows deep. We served 3,200 families who drove through. We had to get the police out here to direct traffic because of the number of people who showed up,” Engel said. “Cars started lining up at 1 a.m. and we didn’t open until 8 a.m. We had planned for the event to run from 8 to 4, but we were out of food by 11:15.”

Engel said the bank’s dry goods are dwindling because she can’t get orders filled even trying to buy the products needed.

“I think I will have an order placed and then I get a message that the product has been diverted to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) or it is out of stock and it will be a month before it ships,” Engel said.

The regional food bank serves eight senior citizen centers in Sebastian County and Engel said those administrators are having a tough time. She said the Meals on Wheels program that serves seniors is being stressed. Engel said many of the seniors have already depleted their own food supplies and being urged to stay inside and many are doing without unless agencies intervene.

“Yesterday we made up emergency boxes of food essentials and dog food for them because they were being told these seniors and shut-ins were trying to make the one meal last all day and they had nothing to feed their dogs,” Engel said.

She said with so many people in the region working in the hospitality sector or retail sectors that have been hit hard by furloughs, the food needs continue to escalate. She said with kids being out of school that increases the food needs for families who generally get help by school lunches and breakfast. Engel said she has never witnessed anything like this with respect to not being able to get products.

“We are very grateful for what Tyson Foods and Walmart provide, it’s amazing, but even Walmart has no extra toilet paper or pasta to share because they can’t keep their own shelves stocked. When we had the flood I was able to get help from around the country with things like diapers and personal toiletries, but now the whole country is facing the same crisis and there are not enough products to share,” she said.

She said the Walmart grocery distribution center located in Clarksville has committed to give two semi truckloads of product every day next week that will be shared with sister banks around the state. Engel said Walmart usually provides one semi load daily. She said there were 54 pallets of fresh produce delivered to the Fort Smith location Friday morning and she sent produce to Little Rock to help there.

Engel expects the demand for food will increase as more people lose jobs and the shutdown lingers well into April. She said the Fort Smith region could use more cash donations if consumers or businesses are in a position to help meet the need. She said product donation is discouraged because everything that comes in must be sanitized before it can be given out and with a small staff and no volunteers that is a cumbersome task.

Last year, Engel said the River Valley Regional Food Bank that serves Sebastian, Crawford, Johnson, Logan, Scott, Franklin, Polk and Yell counties distributed 12 million pounds of product. She said this year that number will increase given the demand uptick this spring.

Kent Eikenberry, director of the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank, said March distributions were up 13%, all of which was in the last two weeks. He said there are usually 65,000 people in Benton, Carroll, Madison and Washington counties who are food insecure. He said that is expected to be 100,000 since the COVID-19 outbreak has rendered so many jobless.

“The Northwest Arkansas Council estimates there are about 50,000 hospitality, service jobs in the region and at least 80% of those people have likely been furloughed or had to shut down their small businesses,” Eikenberry said.

He said the local food bank has seen a 23% increase in new households served from a year ago and a 20% increase in individuals served. Eikenberry said food donations from grocery stores is down because they don’t have extra to give. While food donations are down, he said cash donations are up. He said 4,000 individual donors provided funds last year and several dozen corporate partners continue to provide food and funds.

“This region is blessed, but the needs are growing and we want the public to know we are here and ready to help during this challenging time,” Eikenberry said.

The Northwest Arkansas Food Bank received a load of White Cloud toilet paper and paper towels as well as hand sanitizer delivered this past week. Thursday and Friday staff worked to pack boxes that were being distributed to senior centers and groups at the most risk while also being told to stay home. The local food bank serves around 120 food pantries, most of which are affiliated with churches, schools and agencies. They run 13 mobile pantries once a month around the region and are working to backfill food desert areas where food-insecure populations live.

Eikenberry said he has the ability to order food online and is having to do more of that given the reduced corporate donations. He said every week to 10 days the local bank receives a semi-truckload of protein from Tyson Foods. He said drivers typically pick up food donations from Walmart and Harps five days a week, but given the uptick in demand at stores, those donations are now available three days a week and they go direct to pantries because of the shorter shelf-life.

The Northwest Arkansas Food Bank has a staff of 26 and in normal times a volunteer army of nearly 3,000 people who provided 8,000 hours of service last year. The volunteer service has been suspended as the food bank works to keep COVID-19 risks as low as possible. Anyone entering the building must submit to a temperature test, and answer a short list of questions. Hand washing is mandatory before entering and gloves are required if any product is touched. Eikenberry said they are taking all the precautions possible to keep COVID-19 at bay including allowing some to work from home if their job is conducive to that.

This year the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank expects to spend roughly $1.5 million buying food to give those in need. He said they are also planting a garden on the site in hopes of growing produce that can be given out. He also buys local produce from farmers when the price is right and need is there.

Eikenberry expects the demand from consumers will increase over the next month or so as more furloughed families deplete savings and wait on unemployment benefits. He said many of the foodservice employees furloughed could be without pay for up to a month before unemployment benefits kick in.

“This COVID-19 crisis will likely include more than just hourly workers as many business professionals from dentists to chiropractors to salon managers have seen their income streams dry up. We are here and want to help anyone in need,” he said.

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