Before the pandemic, more than 37 million people in the United States were starving and food insecure. Now that unemployment is rising, that number is much higher – and growing.
Food banks across the country are struggling to meet demand, including one in Houston, Texas.
ECHOS ‘pantry, which also provides health and other social services, has more than tripled the amount of food it distributes to families and individuals since mid-March. In a normal week before the pandemic, ECHOS served around 100 customers, the majority of whom were poor or homeless.
Around 750 families currently live in the pantry every week, most of whom are unemployed and part of a vulnerable population.
“It’s overwhelming because we don’t have enough staff or volunteers. We can’t do as much as we want, ”says managing director Cathy Moore.
In the past, customers could come into the pantry and choose their own food. Due to social distancing measures, volunteers and staff are now packing groceries and arranging for it to be picked up at the roadside. Security is on site to keep the process civil and the queues in order as some customers can get impatient waiting in line for an hour or two, she explains.
Because of the long wait, the cars are lined up around 6:30 a.m. and 7:00 a.m., she says.
Cars line up to get food from the ECHOS pantry in Houston (Courtesy)
Moore says she heard the panic in people’s voices describing the unfamiliar situation many are now facing.
“We had a lot of new customers who are scared because they have never been in this position,” she says. “Families who were never unemployed could never put food on a table. And now they need to ask for help and they need other services too. “
ECHOS has tried to balance the roadside grocery collection with grocery vouchers and gift cards. That way, families can pick up the things they like to eat.
Staff and volunteers distribute a variety of foods including protein, cereal, spaghetti and sauce, as well as canned chicken and salmon, which are considered “premium” items in the pantry.
The pantry is powered by groceries from the Houston Food Bank, another nonprofit in the city where families donate food in boxes and bags, she says.
But the stress of increased need puts a strain on her and the staff, she says. They have been running at sprint level since March 15th, trying to serve their community.
Although they still care for the same number of families each week, ECHOS limits the distribution days for food to three days a week.
The impact of the coronavirus on the economy has been devastating and is unlikely to end anytime soon. Keeping pantries working across the country will require more volunteers and funding, according to Moore.
“There are nonprofits in your community that also need volunteers because it’s really difficult to do this job without help,” she says. “We need funding to keep groceries in our pantry, and we need funding to buy gift cards and grocery vouchers so our families can buy perishable food that they want and that the family likes.”
Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Serena McMahon customized it for the web.