Coronavirus Pandemic Tests Food Banks Throughout W.Va.
As restrictions on daily activities tighten and confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus continue to rise, across West Virginia many community-based food pantries report more people are using their services.
While federal food resources are being expanded during the pandemic, some organizations operating on the ground say they are grappling with how COVID-19 is changing day-to-day operations.
The closure of restaurants and the rush to stockpile food has impacted the need across the state. In addition to the higher demand, food banks are also struggling to figure out how to deliver food to the elderly and vulnerable populations with limited staff and volunteers, who are in some cases vulnerable themselves.
“I think it’s important to remember that before this COVID-19 crisis, we were already in a crisis around food insecurity,” said Joshua Lohnes, director of food policy research at the West Virginia University Food Justice Lab.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on average between 2016 to 2018, 15.7 percent of West Virginians were food insecure, which means, at times, their household struggled to have enough to eat.
The Mountain State experiences a high level of poverty, which creates the conditions for hunger, Lohnes said. An estimated 300,000 West Virginians relied on food pantries each month before the coronavirus pandemic ground the U.S. economy to a halt and put, so far, at least 28,000 West Virginians temporarily out of work.
The state’s 550 food pantries serve a vital role in many communities, but their services and capacity varies widely, according to Lohnes. Especially in the most impoverished counties of West Virginia, food pantries play a vital role.
‘We’re Just Waiting’
At the Five Loaves and Two Fishes Food Bank in McDowell County, supplies are limited, and to ensure safety, the volunteers are asking people to make appointments to pick up food.
Linda McKinney is the co-owner of this food bank, which is entirely volunteer run. In a recent video produced by her son-in-law, J.D. Belcher, she explains the day-to-day challenges the food bank is facing during this time.
“People were texting me, they want to know, ‘are you still going to give out food tomorrow?’ I have to wait. I don't know. We're just waiting,” she said.
This past weekend, McKinney estimated there were about 80 people on the waiting list.
“But we have to regroup on Monday to see how much food we’ve got, and how much we can stretch it,” she said. “Then if you can go out and shop, like you did this morning, if you've got a child and a family, you're going to get some cereal. We may be able to give them a gallon of milk.”
One item in particularly high demand is baby formula. The food bank has run out of baby formula, McKinney said, and they are having to send away parents and family members in need.
Many of the clients who use the food bank in McDowell County are grandparents raising their infant grandchildren, and they do not therefore have formula to feed these babies.
The state’s two largest food banks, which distribute the bulk of federally-purchased food aid, said they too are seeing an increased need.
Chad Morrison with Mountaineer Foodbank in Gassaway, West Virginia said in an email the organization, which provides food to pantries across the state, has seen “almost a 30 percent increase in need almost overnight.”
He said currently the food chain is still available, but the surge “is a massive undertaking for our organization and our network of feeding agencies throughout the state.”
The Facing Hunger Food Bank in Huntington provides food to 220 member pantries throughout West Virginia, in Boone, Cabell, Jackson, Lincoln, Logan, Kanawha, Mason Mingo, McDowell, Putnam, Wayne and Wyoming counties.
Executive Director Cynthia Kirkhart said the food bank has also seen a roughly 30 percent increase in emergency food assistance requests for individuals.
Meanwhile, the organization is seeing a decline in donations from retailers. Due to “panic buying,” many grocers have less items to offer.
There’s also a push to help seniors who especially are homebound at this time due to higher risk. Kirkhart said Facing Hunger is providing hundreds of prepackaged meals to homes throughout Lincoln, Wayne, Cabell and Mingo Counties. Many of these have never before used the food bank.
Facing Hunger is also stepping in to help individuals, as some pantries throughout southern West Virginia are closing. Kirkhart said she has noticed several member pantries shut their doors in the last few weeks.
“The majority of folks who are managing them, running pantries, they meet that vulnerable population description,” Kirkhart said. “So some of them have concerns about the volunteers’ health and well being. Some of the churches have determined from maybe their higher up organizations, that they're going to close through the end of the month or until Easter. So then if the church is closed, the pantries can't operate as per their usual.”
In Wheeling, the House of the Carpenter has seen an over 200 percent increase in the amount of people requesting assistance. Executive Director Michael Linger said he expected this uptick in demand when he heard about the first cases of people in the United States to test positive for Covid-19 a few weeks ago.
“We made some large purchases of food late February, early March, in anticipation that this might happen,” he said. “So, we're actually pretty good on food at the moment.”
Another way Linger’s organization has prepared for the increased demand is by suspending their other services, which includes after school programs and a thrift store. Instead, they plan to focus solely on the food pantry for the time being. The House of the Carpenter is currently operating its food pantry as a curbside pickup operation to keep up with social distancing recommendations.
Many of those stopping at the House of the Carpenter are people who have not used their services in the past.
“[There are] two things that we haven't seen before. One is a large number of people whose jobs have been put on hold. And so they're waiting to get any kind of, you know, unemployment benefits or anything that will allow them to shop. The second is people going into the grocery store and finding limited resources,” Linger said.
With panic buying surging across the country, necessities like canned goods and bread can be hard to find at the grocery store.
Linger said his food bank has also seen an increase in the number of children in need of meals, after Ohio County Schools recently suspended their bagged lunch program, where students could pick up food at their bus stops.
“Longterm, based on the number of people we're seeing, we don't know how long our supply will last, but we will continue to distribute food for as long as it lasts,” he said.
'Gaps On The Shelves'
Director Craig Hammond at the Bluefield Union Mission said he’s noticed a similar increase, around 35 to 40 percent, in food and hygiene item requests.
“As we look at our food pantry shelves, we’re starting to see gaps on the shelves,” Hammond said. “We had a full pantry starting off in March. We bought canned fruit and other shelf stable food items. I think we'll be running a little low by the end of the month, and now we could sure use some of those items.”
Union Mission serves food, shelter and clothing needs to people in a five-county area, including McDowell, Mercer, Monroe and Summers counties in West Virginia, and Tazewell County in Virginia. Hammond said he doesn't expect to turn anyone away at this time, but staff and volunteers have made some changes to limit potential disease spread at the mission.
“We have, because of the crisis, tried to reduce the density of people in one place,” he said. “When you serve a lot of people, it's not that easy, but we've been actually getting pretty good at it.”
Food pantries and soup kitchens are also adjusting how they provide their services to the people who use them. Many have moved to curb-side pickup, or appointment-only services.
At the Salvation Army of Monongalia and Marion counties, location in downtown Morgantown, Sheldon Greenland said the organization has seen an uptick in need for all its services, including emergency food bags, help with utility bills and hot meals.
The organization serves a hot meal daily from 4 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. Since the pandemic began, Greenland said more individuals are taking advantage. On an average day, the Morgantown location serves between 100-120 people, he said. Lately, it’s been between 125-140.
The soup kitchen has also had to make adjustments in how it serves patrons to stay in line with state and federal guidelines related to the coronavirus.
Usually they invite people inside to sit and eat in their cafeteria, but now they are providing the meal as takeout.
“It kind of breaks our heart because we built a really good culture in our cafeteria, but we have to maintain the distance,” Greenland said. He said they will soon be adding hand washing stations outside the building for those experiencing homelessness.
Like other food pantries, they are also recalibrating where they source their food.
“A lot of our food was donated from some of our local restaurants, and most of them are closing,” Greenland said.
They have increased their orders from the USDA. However, many other pantries are doing the same.
“It is really a conundrum that we're all facing right now," he said. “But we want to be able to stay open so that we can continue to serve our communities.”
'A Day To Day Situation'
Union Mission's food pantry in Charleston recently began an “elder care initiative” to deliver food to seniors in the program’s network.
After purchasing $20,000 of food for roughly 70 seniors, Union Mission CEO Jason Quintrell said Tuesday evening the effort was already running dangerously low on funds.
On Tuesday, Quintrell said the program was unable to accept new seniors at this time.
"If I open this up to the public, and I [can’t] produce food, that really worries me,” he said. “I'm going to do the best I can with the people that we contact and set up appointments, but right now it's like a day to day situation.”
Eastern Panhandle Response
Not all food pantries are reporting challenges, however. Some food pantries in the Eastern Panhandle region of West Virginia are preparing for a possible storm, but they’ve not seen a drastic increase in clientele yet.
Berkeley County’s largest food pantry, Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry, located in Martinsburg, is open Monday through Friday. Beverly Van Metre, president of the Berkeley County CCAP Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry, said they’ve been busy, but they also haven’t seen as many people as they'd expected.
In Grant County, Vice chairman of the Petersburg Interface Pantry Melissa Collens said they’ve seen a minor increase in the number of families who have called for food, but it’s not clear whether it has to do with the coronavirus.
“We are doing okay … [and] we’ve taken some measures to be more efficient,” Collens said.
In Mineral County, Faith in Action Food Pantry has closed “for the foreseeable future,” according to the pantry’s phone voice machine, due to the “safety of our staff and our clients.”
During Gov. Jim Justice’s daily press conference on Tuesday, March 24, West Virginia National Guard Major General James Hoyer said the Guard is aware that some food pantries are struggling. He said the Guard, through West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOAD, is working to provide help. Hoyer said Justice has instructed the Guard to prioritize supporting the state’s vulnerable populations, including children and the elderly.
“We will continue to build out a plan to sustain support for our vulnerable population,” Hoyer said. He said they plan to work with retailers to ensure that food stays on the shelves in grocery stores, to help reduce some of the high demand for donated food at food pantries.
On Wednesday, March 25, Hoyer said more than 600 “food packs” were assembled. Packs contain multiple days of food and will be distributed to both seniors and families with children, he said.
Last week, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response, which allocated an additional $400 million for The Emergency Food Assistance Program, the federal program that provides food for distribution to food insecure households through food pantries and soup kitchens.
According to Lohnes at WVU, West Virginia's share of this money, based on a formula, is about 0.62 percent, or about $1.9 million in emergency food dollars. The state is also slated to receive around $620,000 in administrative dollars to help food banks distribute the additional supplies.
He said that while that is positive, food banks across West Virginia are already struggling to move food because of a lack of administrative resources, including funding to pay staff, for fuel and for cold storage.
“With the increased demand food banks will now likely need even more,” he said.
With the increase in federal assistance, and quick response of school districts and food pantries to serve people during this fast-moving crisis, Lohnes said hopes those lessons can be applied once the pandemic has subsided.
“It is amazing what's been done in a week,” he said. “I think we need to be attentive to the policy shifts and learn from them so that we can ensure the right to adequate nutritious food for all, even once this crisis is beyond us.”