Food banking in the United States during Covid-19
David Robinson, a MSc Global Food Security and Nutrition Programme student, shares his experiences of food banking in the United States during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I am an MSc Global Food Security and Nutrition Programme student and I also currently work as a Community Engagement Coordinator for St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance.
As I share my experiences of food banking in the United States during the Covid-19 pandemic, my job role includes outreaching to places to establish food distributions, training sites on conducting safe, efficient distributions, assisting with coordination, providing technical assistance, and occasionally helping out at larger distributions.
As well, I work to transition locations that started distributions as an emergency response to become long-term partners so improved food access will continue in communities after the pandemic and outside short-term relief efforts are no longer.
St. Mary’s Food Bank located in Arizona, US, is the largest food bank in the state covering a service area of over 155,000 km2 and in just 2019 over 43 million kg of food was distributed across this area.
This work is accomplished partially through St. Mary’s conducted distributions but largely through supporting over 600 partners across the state including food pantries, senior centres, schools, and other community resources.
St. Mary’s sponsors food assistance programmes for these sites, supplies the food, and provides support, and our partners distribute the food out to their community.
Within our service area, we serve the most populated part of the state, the metro Phoenix area, and some of the most remote locations in the state where grocery stores can be 2 hours away for households. We also serve part of the Navajo Nation, the U.S.’s largest Native American reservation.
At the start of the pandemic, demand for food assistance was especially high due to the accompanying economic hardship as seen across the nation.
At the same time, adapting and training our partners on operating safe, no-contact distributions had to be quickly done to safely address the rising need.
Locations have switched to drive-through models and more home deliveries are happening. It was also crucial to establish new partners in rural areas where we were not directly serving beforehand.
On the Navajo Nation which was hit disproportionally by the pandemic, it was even requested by their government to establish food distributions in as many communities as possible to help limit citizens from traveling between communities as many are locations where grocery stores are far away. Thus, since March St. Mary’s has worked with over 40 new partners, mostly on the Navajo Nation.
Expansion focused on the mobile distribution programme which involves sending food that sites distribute out within a few hours after delivery through the drive-through method.
A large benefit of this is it mitigates the need for storage which many rural communities lack access to. Bringing on new sites remotely was a change and came with concerns regarding food safety and reporting requirements as staff members would not be present for the locations’ first distributions as in the past. Webinar trainings were held frequently and follow-up calls conducted to help ensure distribution practices were food safe and hygienic.
A major additional challenge was an abrupt drop in volunteer numbers which food banking typically relies heavily on for packing and distributing food. St. Mary’s utilised the US national guard and staff members stepped into those volunteer roles while some of our partners hired temporary workers and others tiringly did the same work with less help.
Food policy also came into play in our efforts as St. Mary’s operates federal student meal programmes. The US Department of Agriculture waived many meal programme rules which allowed our sites to give out meals to-go instead of congregate feeding, multiple meals could be given out at a time, and parents rather than children could pick up meals. Nutritional requirements of meals were also waived due to difficulty sourcing some items due to higher demands of foods like milk cartons and fruit and vegetable sides.
Although we wish it was under different circumstances, we are glad food access has increased for many more communities long-term through newly established partnerships, increased collaboration between agencies, and loosening of programme restrictions. New funding for creative ways to get food out have also showcased ways to better serve food insecure households which will hopefully continue to be supported in the future.