It’s not over: NJ food banks brace for persistent demand even when pandemic fades

Emergency food assistance expected to stay at record levels for two years or more
Credit: Food Bank of South Jersey
Staff and volunteers for the Food Bank of South Jersey handed out about 600 food boxes at a recent distribution in Lindenwold, Camden County.

Twelve months of surging demand for emergency food assistance from pandemic-hit workers made for a grueling and unprecedented year for New Jersey’s food banks. And now they are bracing for more of the same over the next two years even if unemployment drops in line with declining COVID-19 infections.

The economic damage wrought by mass layoffs and business closures is expected to persist long after vaccines become widely available and that means demand for food assistance will remain at the current high level for months or years to come, food bank executives said.

Leaders of the state’s three biggest food banks said so many people have built up debt, including rent or mortgage arrears, just to survive the pandemic that they will continue to rely on the emergency food network for some time even as they start to return to work and rebuild their finances.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” said Carlos Rodriguez, president of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, the state’s largest, which supplies food to distribution agencies in 15 counties. “Our outlook is to continue this rate of distribution for at least the next 24 months.”

Even if the jobless rate drops to its pre-pandemic rate of about 3.5%, that won’t immediately mean the pressure on food banks will ease because the economic hangover from the pandemic will lead to long-lasting demand for emergency food at its current record high, he said.

“Even families who have had some type of work throughout the pandemic still fall short of being complete and need emergency food,” he said. “That’s not going to change unless we wipe out 100 percent of everyone’s debt that they accumulated over the last 12 months. There’s going to be increased need in the future. Families’ inability to feed themselves is directly related to their inability to meet all their expenses.”

Supplying millions of meals

Since the start of the pandemic, the Community Food Bank has supplied enough food for 83 million meals, up from some 50 million in the previous 12 months. That number is likely to be closer to 90 million by the end of the current fiscal year in June and is not expected to decline in any meaningful way for the next two years, Rodriguez said.

“We are planning 80-plus, close to 90 million meal, distribution per year over the next two years. We are planning to adjust our resources to continue to do this,” he said.

At the Food Bank of South Jersey, which serves about 175,000 food-insecure people in four counties, there’s the same expectation that demand for emergency food will stay at current high levels for the next 18 months to two years, said its president, Fred Wasiak.

The Pennsauken-based group is supplying about 40% more food to its distributors than it did before the pandemic, and in January gave out 50% more food in terms of weight than it did in January 2020.

That demand is expected to continue even if the economy recovers as more people get COVID-19 vaccines, Wasiak said.

“Having the vaccines is wonderful but the ripple effect on the economy, jobs lost, businesses closed for ever — that is with us,” he said. “This is going to be around for a while, so our organizations are in this together.”

Unprecedented demand

Despite the unprecedented demand, food banks have kept people fed over the last year through their networks of hundreds of pantries and soup kitchens, and through mass-distribution events that helped to respond to the sudden increase in the need for emergency food.

Although some pantries closed earlier in the pandemic because their volunteers, many of them elderly, did not want to risk getting COVID-19, there has been a net increase in the number of those partner agencies working with the Food Bank of South Jersey because more of them wanted to help feed the hungry, Wasiak said. At the mass distributions, hundreds of cars typically wait in line for pre-packed boxes of food that are loaded by masked volunteers into people’s open trunks, allowing all parties to remain socially distanced. The same pre-packaged principle is now used at food pantries, where clients were allowed before the pandemic to choose the foods they wanted.

Credit: Food Bank of South Jersey
Cars lined up for a recent Food Bank of South Jersey distribution of food boxes in Lindenwold, Camden County.

The quick adaptation of distribution to the conditions of the public health emergency helps to explain the food banks’ ability to keep people fed, executives said.

“We have always been able to meet demand,” Wasiak said. “We never ran out of food in any of our distribution lines or our pantries or here at the food bank.”

Able to feed everyone

Their ability to feed everyone has also depended crucially on financial help from the state, which didn’t fund food banks until the pandemic started.

In the current fiscal year ending June 30, New Jersey’s five food banks got a total of $50 million from the state and state-directed funding from the federal CARES Act, said Kim Guadagno, president of Fulfill, a food bank serving about 210,000 people in Monmouth and Ocean counties. For the coming fiscal year, the banks asked Gov. Phil Murphy for $30 million, and got a $25 million in Murphy’s proposed budget.

Guadagno, a Republican who served two terms as lieutenant governor, called the proposed $25 million “a good start” but said the food banks will be seeking more state money during the budget process over the next several months. Still, she acknowledged that state and federal funding so far has been essential to meeting the higher demand for emergency food.

“Without the help of the CARES Act and the money that came from the state in addition, there is no way we could have continued doing what we’re doing,” she said.

If state funding for the food banks ends up being $25 million for the coming year, Fulfill’s share will be about 11% of that, or some $2.75 million, a sum that Guadagno hopes will be augmented by the Biden administration’s new stimulus package, which is still being debated by Congress.

Longer-lasting demand in Monmouth, Ocean counties?

Meanwhile, the higher demand for food is likely to last even longer in Monmouth and Ocean counties than in other parts of New Jersey because the area’s hospitality-based economy has been especially hard-hit by the pandemic, Guadagno said.

“Until the unemployment rate in our area comes down, we are in it for the long run. We’re looking at two or three years if we’re lucky,” she said.

With so many bars, restaurants and hotels forced to close, the Monmouth County jobless rate, now at around 9%, is still about three times what it was before the pandemic, and that in Ocean County is about twice its previous level, she said.

Guadagno compared the current economy to the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2010 when she was lieutenant governor under Gov. Chris Christie. At that time, unemployment started “inching its way down” from its highs during the financial crisis two years earlier, and it’s likely to do the same in the post-pandemic economy, she said.

And she has little hope that vaccinations will help revive the economy anytime soon, noting that neither her staff, nor local teachers, nor her undocumented clients have yet been vaccinated for COVID-19.

Until the jobless rate drops significantly, many people will need help from groups like food banks to repair the damage their finances have suffered from the pandemic, Guadagno predicted.

“The only way people are surviving is if they went in debt or held off rent or mortgage payments,” she said. “It’s just kicking the can down the road, which is why social services like the one we provide are important. We stabilize them and help them get out of the hole the pandemic has put them in.”

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