Food Banks Brace for New Surge in Demand if Federal Jobless Money Ends

Anti-hunger groups feed high numbers and plan for more as economy reels from pandemic
Credit: (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Many low- and middle-income families have been relying on food banks and other services during the pandemic.

Reginald Amos visited the St. James Food Pantry in Newark to help feed his family from time to time over the last four years or so, but he’s been going a lot more often since the coronavirus hit.

Amos lost his job as an agency security guard when many businesses shut down in late March, and with no income — and still no payments from his application in March for state jobless benefits — he has become increasingly dependent on food assistance from the pantry, which is operated by the St. James Social Service Corporation.

Needing to feed a wife and three children, aged 11, 4 and 6 months, Amos, 36, has relied on the food provided by St. James, and expects to do so unless or until he gets a call from the security-guard agency to return to work. The pantry has allowed him to put food on his table during a time of deep economic distress, and has provided a full range of groceries, for which he is very grateful. “They gave me a whole box of Italian sausage,” he said.

When he was working, he would typically make about $300 a week, a sum that, with five mouths to feed, rules out any thought of saving for a rainy day. “Savings?” he asked. “I’m a security guard.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic now in its fifth month and New Jersey’s official 15.2% jobless rate for May about four times higher than the pre-pandemic level, people like Amos are joining the swelling ranks of the “food insecure” — those who may not know where their next meal is coming from.

According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, New Jersey’s number of food-insecure people will jump by 56% this year, an increase of 432,000 since 2018, because of the economic devastation caused by the pandemic. Its new report, “The Impact of Coronavirus on Food Insecurity,” estimates that 54 million Americans, including 18 million children, may experience food insecurity because of the pandemic.

That’s driven record increases in the amount of food supplied by New Jersey’s food banks and distributed by hundreds of food pantries like St. James’s since the pandemic began. The demand is expected to remain high even as people gradually return to work, food bank executives said.

Credit: Andrew S. Lewis
May 14, 2020: The Community Food Bank of New Jersey distributed food at Bader Field, Atlantic City.

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey, the state’s largest, working in 16 counties, distributed enough food for 66 million meals in the 12 months to June this year, up from 50 million meals a year earlier, said its president, Carlos Rodriguez. By June next year, it’s anticipating the number will grow to 80 million meals because of continued high unemployment or under-employment.

“That’s what the need is telling us we should at least continue to expect,” he said.

When the $600 federal payments dry up

Rodriguez said there has been some recovery in donations of food from supermarkets after a big drop earlier in the pandemic because the markets were having trouble sourcing food, and selling most of what they got to their customers. Still, food donations have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, and that is requiring food banks to buy more of their food and forcing them to raise money to do so, he said.

Food bank leaders’ biggest fear is that the $600-a-week federal supplement to state unemployment benefits will end as scheduled on July 31, deepening the economic distress felt by many families.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress appear to be far apart on any agreement on a new package of pandemic relief measures that might include an extension of the extra jobless benefit.

Although any termination of the federal money would be cushioned by a 20-week extension of state jobless benefits, announced by New Jersey on July 1, the loss of the federal supplement is expected to create a new surge in demand for food assistance.

“We anticipate and are prepared for an influx of new food bank participants at our food distributions throughout South Jersey when the jobless benefits come to a close,” said Fred Wasiak, president of the Food Bank of South Jersey, which is now supplying food to about 90,000 people via pantries in Camden, Burlington, Gloucester and Salem counties.

The South Jersey bank is expecting to meet higher demand because of the impact of COVID-19 for “months to come,” he said.

In another sign of high and growing demand for food assistance, three pantries operated by Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Paterson served some 25,000 people in June compared with its typical pre-pandemic level of 5,000-7,000 a month, the organization said. “It is a sad reality that so many people need this type of assistance,” said Scott Milliken, Catholic Charities’ chief executive officer.

Elsewhere in Paterson, the hunger-relief organization CUMAC saw a 92% increase in demand for food in May compared with a year earlier, and served 56,000 meals to more than 3,700 families during the month.

‘Burning through’ the budget

Executive director Mark Dinglasan said he “burned through” his annual food budget by May, so is now fundraising and considering whether to rely instead on food donations. The problem with that option, he said, is that donated food is likely to be shelf-stable and therefore less nutritious than the fresh produce, meat and eggs that his organization has included in its distributions so far.

The number of new clients has recently shown signs of tapering off, Dinglasan said, but he fears a rebound if landlords and banks are allowed to resume evicting tenants and foreclosing on mortgages if or when Gov. Phil Murphy’s ban on those actions is lifted.

In March, Murphy’s Executive Order 106 banned evictions and foreclosures during the public health emergency, but allowed those court proceedings to continue on condition that they are not enforced. The order applies for two months after the end of the public health emergency, which remains in effect.

Landlords and lenders, many deprived of four months of payments, are now pursuing claims against delinquent tenants and borrowers, Dinglasan said, and if Murphy’s order is lifted, a surge in evictions and foreclosures could add to the food-insecurity crisis that has put such pressure on CUMAC and other anti-hunger groups.

“This pandemic is creating a perfect storm where food is just the tip of the iceberg for us,” he said, noting that CUMAC has allied with five other nonprofits to provide different services for the poor of Passaic County.

Despite the prospect of a further increase in demand for food, Dinglasan predicted supply will match it but it is unclear where the food will come from or what it will cost. “In this country of abundance, I don’t think supply will necessarily be a problem. But how are they going to get it to me? How much are they going to charge me?” he asked.

Still, the food banks’ finances got some help last week when the governor awarded $20 million in new funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to the state’s six food banks, to be split on the basis of how many people each serves.

Calling the food banks “a critical lifeline” for New Jersey families, Murphy said the funding would help the banks continue to serve people during the pandemic.

In Monmouth and Ocean counties, the Fulfill food bank, too, is bracing for a surge in demand if the extra federal jobless benefit runs out at the end of July, and is preparing for another jump in the number of hungry people if the pandemic spikes again in response to cooler weather at the end of the year.

After Murphy withdrew plans for the resumption of indoor dining, hopes were dashed that Shore-town restaurants could salvage their summer season after being closed since March, said Kim Guadagno, the food bank’s president and the state’s former lieutenant governor.

“That is not the thinking now, so we expect a surge earlier in the fall, and we plan on a fall/winter surge as COVID makes the rounds when we all move indoors,” she said. “This is a worldwide crisis that far exceeds anything the Jersey Shore experienced during Superstorm Sandy or after the 2008 recession.”