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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