Bridging the gap between families and hunger during COVID-19

By Laura Lester, Executive Director of Alabama Food Banks

Republished with permission from Laura Lester. Originally published on on September 6, 2020. Click here to see original article.

The Alabama Food Bank Association is comprised of the four food banks and four distribution centers that partner with Feeding America to serve Alabama residents across the state. Our members and their more than 1,600 partner agencies are hard at work assisting hungry Alabamians financially impacted by Covid-19.

Even before the pandemic, residents throughout Alabama have had to make difficult decisions to avoid hunger in their homes. In central Alabama, a 2019 study by the Community Food Bank showed that people who sought their help have had to sacrifice medical care, rent, utilities, and other essentials just to eat. In 2020, job loss and other pandemic-related problems have only exacerbated that situation, and our food banks desperately require financial support to meet the rising needs.

The state of Alabama has the power to alleviate our food banks most immediate funding concerns through grant money provided by the CARES ACT. It is our sincere hope that Governor Kay Ivey will recognize the importance of these food banks and allocate sufficient funds to our efforts.

CARES Act grants are distributed at the discretion of the state, and only $15,000 is available per non-profit. In Alabama, each individual food bank must apply for CARES support, and many non-profits are all competing for the funding at a time when we are already overwhelmed by an unprecedented need.

In Alabama, as many as 400,000 children count on their schools for at least one meal per day. When school is not in session, the Alabama Food Bank Association typically provides much needed meals for students through the Summer Meals Program. This service ensures children 18 years and younger are properly fed when school lunches are not available. Last year, we were able to serve more than 68,000 lunch meals for over 4,000 children in communities throughout the state.

As Alabama’s school systems moved to virtual schooling in the spring, our summer feeding programs stepped up to ensure children in Alabama were fed. For the first time in Alabama history the Summer Meals Program operated for more than 20 weeks. ALFBA’s program reached more than 10,000 children and served nearly $1 million worth of meals.

As the pandemic has persisted into the summer, we’ve seen an increase in need, yet a decrease in income sources. Community efforts like our annual galas and fundraisers couldn’t be held this year for public safety concerns, and that has interrupted much-needed funding opportunities that we’ve counted on year after year, at a time when the money is most directly needed.

Feeding the Gulf Coast, the food bank covering lower Alabama, faced a 30 percent increase in need across their community, and they’re expected to see that need remain or even rise to 38 percent through the rest of the year. That 30 percent spike translates to about 8,378,000 additional meals. The Community Food Bank of Central Alabama reports that they spent more on food in one month and a half in 2020 that they paid in all of 2019. They’re currently seeking support for their Summer Hunger Challenge, with the goal of providing 500,000 meals in Birmingham and other central Alabama communities.

To further complicate the challenges we face this year, our work has also been slowed by the necessary precautions we must take to ensure the safety of our staff, volunteers, and the people we serve. Most local food banks have had to alter their operations due to safety concerns in limiting the spread of COVID-19. This could mean fewer people on hand to process donations and distribute meals.

Some sites have adopted a mobile food component or no-touch model distribution pick-up system to adapt to the ongoing circumstances. Food banks have also had to purchase additional PPE, and those extra costs have cut notably into their available funds. Our four locations across the state count on retailers for up to 50 percent of our stock, and this year’s food supply shortages have caused a drop in donations from these grocery stores. Months after the shutdown, it’s still hard to stock up on staples like canned vegetables.

Even as our non-profits must petition and compete for limited financial support in Alabama, we have seen that other states allocate higher amounts directly for their food banks. In Tennessee, the state has designated the Second Harvest Food Bank to directly distribute funds to food banks for Emergency Food Assistance, and in Mississippi, $8 million in CARES money has been allocated for non-profits, with half of that specifically designated for food banks.

In Florida, Brevard County alone set aside $4 million to help food banks care for their population of 500,000 people. New Jersey used a portion of their CARES funds to distribute $20 million across five food banks within the state. The $15,000 available to a single Alabama food bank would be quickly depleted during normal operations, and clearly wouldn’t stretch as far as we need it under these difficult circumstances. The funds that our food banks received earlier this spring were prompt and much appreciated, but we can plainly see that we will need renewed support and broader access to CARES funding.

Providing food to those in need is an essential service. During a pandemic, the need for proper support for our food banks has only been heightened. We are grateful for those who donate food items and funds to our banks, and for the groups and religious institutions that provide much-needed help, but we will require greater support from the state itself to continue fighting hunger in the midst of this crisis.

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Meat + Three Podcast Features ECHA County Food Guide Project

From the website:
“On this week’s episode of Meat and Three, we are heading back to school. This year, the first day at school looks a lot different. From daycares to universities, every institution is operating under a different model – and that includes their plans for how students will eat. We bring you reports from cafeterias, take a look at how schools are supporting students who require subsidized lunch, and explore some tips for teaching young kids about nutrition from the comfort of their homes.”

Find the original post here. Thank you to Kat Johnson of Heritage Radio Network for sharing information about the ECHA County Food Guide Project!

Student Broadband Access and COVID-19

Broadband access has become a highlight of student needs during this time online learning with students needing to rely on home internet for online instruction. Join us this Thursday as the Alabama Department of Economics and Community Affairs (ADECA) leads a conversation on how to address the growing student need for consistent broadband access on and off campus. 

When: Thursday, September 3, 2020, 1-3pm CDT
Hosted by: Alabama Department of Economics and Community Affairs  
Zoom Connectivity Information
Join from PC, Mac, Linux, iOS or Android:
Meeting ID: 922 3396 2366

Or Telephone:
Meeting ID: 922 3396 2366   
Dial: +1 301 715 8592 (US Toll) or +1 312 626 6799 (US Toll)

USDA Extends Free Meals for Kids Through December 31, 2020

Summer meal programs can continue operating as funding allows

(Washington, DC, August 31, 2020) – Today, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will extend several flexibilities through as late as December 31, 2020. The flexibilities allow summer meal program operators to continue serving free meals to all children into the fall months. This unprecedented move will help ensure – no matter what the situation is on-the-ground – children have access to nutritious food as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. USDA has been and continues to be committed to using the Congressionally appropriated funding that has been made available.

“As our nation reopens and people return to work, it remains critical our children continue to receive safe, healthy, and nutritious food. During the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA has provided an unprecedented amount of flexibilities to help schools feed kids through the school meal programs, and today, we are also extending summer meal program flexibilities for as long as we can, legally and financially,” said Secretary Perdue. “We appreciate the incredible efforts by our school foodservice professionals year in and year out, but this year we have an unprecedented situation. This extension of summer program authority will employ summer program sponsors to ensure meals are reaching all children – whether they are learning in the classroom or virtually – so they are fed and ready to learn, even in new and ever-changing learning environments.”

“School Nutrition Association greatly appreciates USDA addressing the critical challenges shared by our members serving students on the frontlines these first weeks of school. These waivers will allow school nutrition professionals to focus on nourishing hungry children for success, rather than scrambling to process paperwork and verify eligibility in the midst of a pandemic.” said School Nutrition Association (SNA) President Reggie Ross, SNS. “We look forward to continuing our dialogue with USDA to ensure school meal programs are equipped to meet the future needs of America’s students.”  

“Today’s announcement brings a huge relief to our school meal program and the community we serve,” said Lindsay Aguilar, RD, SNS, Director of Food Services for Tucson Unified School District, AZ. “Many of our families who might not qualify for free meals are still going through a tough time and are worried about how to keep food on the table. Now their children will have one less thing to worry about as they adjust to evolving in-school and remote learning scenarios. These waivers also eliminate a massive administrative burden for our school nutrition staff, allowing them to focus on feeding children.”   

“These waivers will ensure every hungry child in the city of Cleveland has access to healthy school meals, while eliminating the burdensome, time consuming process of verifying and documenting enrollment,” said Chris Burkhardt, SNS, Executive Director of School Nutrition for Cleveland Metropolitan School District, OH. “Our school nutrition team had to develop and implement a bar code verification system this fall that has greatly complicated and slowed service. With these waivers, we’ll be able to speed up meal distribution for the safety of staff and families and ensure no student is denied access to healthy meals.”  

Background:USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is extending a suite of nationwide waivers for the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) through the end of 2020, or until available funding runs out. This includes:

  1.  Allowing SFSP and SSO meals to be served in all areas and at no cost;
  2. Permitting meals to be served outside of the typically-required group settings and meal times;
  3. Waiving meal pattern requirements as necessary; and
  4. Allowing parents and guardians to pick-up meals for their children.

Collectively, these flexibilities ensure meal options for children continue to be available so children can access meals under all circumstances. USDA is taking this unprecedented action to respond to the needs of its stakeholders, who have shared concerns about continuing to reach those in need without enlisting the help of traditional summer sites located throughout communities across the US. While there have been some well-meaning people asking USDA to fund this through the entire 2020-2021 school year, we are obligated to not spend more than is appropriated by Congress.

Importantly, the summer meal program waiver extensions announced today are based on current data estimations. Over the past six months, partners across the country have stood up nearly 80,000 sites, handing out meals at a higher reimbursement rate than the traditional school year program. USDA has continuously recalculated remaining appropriated funds to determine how far we may be able to provide waivers into the future, as Congress did not authorize enough funding for the entire 2020-2021 school year. Reporting activities are delayed due to States responding to the pandemic; however based upon the April data we currently have available, FNS projects that it could offer this extension, contingent on funding, for the remaining months of 2020. USDA will continue to actively monitor this rapidly evolving situation and continue to keep Congress informed of our current abilities and limitations.

Since the start of the public health emergency, FNS has been maximizing existing program services and flexibilities to ensure those in need have access to food through our 15 federal nutrition assistance programs. To date, USDA has provided more than 3,000 flexibilities across these programs. USDA has also leveraged new and innovative approaches to feeding kids, including a public-private partnership that provided nearly 40 million meals directly to the doorsteps of low-income rural children. For more information on FNS’ response to COVID-19, visit