Food banks brace for continuing high demand: NJ 2020, the year of COVID-19

Amount of food distributed likely to stay well above pre-pandemic levels
Credit: (Clockwise from top left: AP Photo/Seth Wenig; CFBNJ; Jon Hurdle; Jon Hurdle)
The year at New Jersey food banks, clockwise from top left: Waiting on line at Oasis, Paterson; volunteers sort food at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey; Dylan Kuzinksi and his mother Jessica Kuzinksi expressed gratitude for the distribution by the Food Bank of South Jersey; loading produce into a waiting car at the Food Bank of South Jersey

For New Jersey’s food banks, it’s been a rough year, and it may be getting worse before it gets better.

The state’s three major food banks already reported record annual increases of around 50% in the amount of food they gave out to the hundreds of food pantries, churches and other charitable organizations that distribute food to the thousands of people who can’t afford to buy groceries because they have lost their jobs in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though New Jersey’s new COVID-19 infections have edged down from record highs of more than 6,000 a day in mid-December to around 4,600 on Tuesday, the latest numbers are still above the springtime peak, and food bank executives say the downtick doesn’t affect their forecast that unemployment — the primary driver of demand for food assistance — will remain high for months to come.

The Food Bank of South Jersey, which services food pantries in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties, and does its own mass distributions, gave out almost 2.5 million pounds of food in November, up from 1.6 million pounds in October. That was the biggest monthly increase in the organization’s history, and the largest total by about 400,000 pounds, said Greg DeLozier, the nonprofit’s senior director of advocacy and government relations.

Although December’s total is not expected to rise as high as it did in November, the amount of food distributed is likely to remain well above pre-pandemic levels for months to come because the economic damage of the pandemic will persist long after infection rates subside as vaccines become widely available, DeLozier predicted.

‘Long-term serious impacts’

“If everybody gets vaccinated, that does not change the employment world because there are long-term serious impacts on the labor market,” he said. “Will restaurants and hotels reopen and rehire? Once the story disappears about COVID, the economics still exist.”

In November, the latest month for which official jobs data are available, the state’s unemployment rate rose 2.2 percentage points from October to 10.2%, or about three times the pre-pandemic level, mainly due to people reentering the work force, according to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development in a Dec. 17 report. Total employment edged up by 7,100 but the state has still only regained 58% of the jobs lost because of the pandemic.

Despite the uptick in the number of people in work, many people are dropping out of the workforce, and may be seeking food assistance even though they are not counted in the official jobless rate, DeLozier said.

The biggest group of those people is likely to be the parents of school-age children, who are forced to stay home with their children because schools have closed during the pandemic, he said.

In addition, people of color are disproportionately affected because many work in the leisure and hospitality industries where 97,600 jobs have been lost over the last year, according to the official data.

The latest surge in demand for food assistance is just the most recent challenge faced by New Jersey’s food banks, all of which have seen an unprecedented increase in demand this year. In October, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey (CFBNJ), the state’s largest, serving 15 counties, said it was doubling an existing 5-million-pound stockpile of food in anticipation of even higher demand during the winter.

Food banks including the Food Bank of South Jersey have added to their normal supply of food through pantries and soup kitchens by holding mass-distribution events at which hundreds of cars typically wait in line and then have food loaded into their trunks or back seats by an army of volunteers. Many of the drivers have never previously obtained food from a food bank, or even known that they exist, but are forced to rely on the assistance because their jobs have gone, their income and savings have dried up, and some have been unable to obtain state or federal jobless benefits during the pandemic, food bank officials say.

Holiday-season surge in demand

The pandemic has increased the number of “food insecure” New Jerseyans — those who don’t have consistent access to healthy food — by 56% from pre-pandemic levels to 1.2 million or 13.5% of the population, according to a report issued in September by CFBNJ. The proportion exceeded the national rate, and that in neighboring states, because of New Jersey’s heavy reliance on the hospitality and restaurant industries, which have been hit especially hard by the pandemic.

At Catholic Charities, which operates food pantries in Franklin, Dover and Paterson, the number of people served has tripled to about 22,000 a month from its level in January and February before the pandemic hit, said Carlos Roldan, director of the organization’s food-distribution operation.

With a holiday-season surge in food demand, and the current jump in COVID-19 infections, Roldan said he wouldn’t be surprised if his monthly client total rises further to between 24,000 and 25,000 soon.

“A lot of people who never thought about coming to a food pantry are coming to a food pantry,” he said. “Because of COVID a lot of people lost their jobs; a lot of people were sent home because of COVID; companies and schools closed. No welfare, no food stamps, no unemployment benefits, so they are coming to a food pantry.”

The number relying on food assistance has grown also because schools — where many students previously ate breakfast and lunch — have closed during the pandemic.

Even with the latest increase in demand, Roldan said he expects to be able to serve everyone who shows up at his pantries, thanks mostly to a doubling in supplies from CFBNJ to some 35,000 pounds a month. That represents about 60% of the total, and the rest comes from donations of money and food from donors including churches and individuals.

“We always have food to give out, we never say no to anybody, but sometimes we can only give some of the things they need,” he said. “Sometimes they get a lot, sometimes they don’t get a lot but they always get something.”

On a recent Friday in December, he said 189 people, representing an estimated 1,300 family members, came to Roldan’s Paterson location to collect food.

’The perfect storm’

Even if the COVID-19 infection rate subsides as vaccines become widely available, food banks anticipate high demand to persist because of the economic damage wrought by the pandemic. And some fear that it will be harder to get the financial support from government, foundations or individuals that has allowed them to meet surging demand, because the public health emergency will recede in the public’s mind.

“When the infection rate comes down and COVID’s not news, they are going to forget, and that’s our great fear,” said DeLozier of the South Jersey Food Bank. “Even if the unemployment rate stays steady it will be at an elevated rate, and if you combine that with the likelihood that attention will be diverted away from food insecurity when the vaccine comes out, that’s really the perfect storm. We’ve been able to weather this so far because of the generosity of a lot of funders.”