Pantries, food banks brace for ‘grim’ winter

Pressure from COVID-19, end of extra benefits expected to stress food-aid network
Credit: (Food Bank of South Jersey)
The Food Bank of South Jersey, like other parts of the state’s food-aid network, is bracing for more high demand this winter.

Eggs are just an everyday item on supermarket shelves but for a Cherry Hill food pantry they were recently a cause for celebration.

An unexpected delivery of 600 dozen eggs allowed the pantry to give out two dozen to each of the 58 families that showed up for a food-distribution event on a recent Wednesday.

Eggs aren’t usually available at the pantry, which takes what it can get from the Food Bank of South Jersey and passes the food on in standardized packages to the approximately 130 families it serves every week.

“Eggs are one of these things like milk that everybody wants but we rarely have because we don’t have the funds to buy them,” said Janet Giordano, executive director of the pantry, Cherry Hill Food & Outreach. “Everybody was so excited, they got two dozen eggs.”

Shortages of common foods are a regular occurrence at Cherry Hill and New Jersey’s hundreds of other local distributors of free food for people whose numbers have been swollen by the coronavirus pandemic, and which aren’t expected to decline to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon.

Preparing for ‘a long recovery’

That means food banks and their community partners are expecting demand for emergency food to stay high even if the pandemic recedes and more people go back to work.

Even before the delta variant sparked a new surge in COVID-19 cases, the food-assistance network was planning for continued higher demand, a forecast borne out by the effects of the highly infectious strain of the coronavirus.

The network is now bracing for winter, when demand normally rises in line with holidays. This year that could be swollen further by the withdrawal of extra jobless benefits and the end of the state’s moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic.

“My plan was that things would be a little better by this November or December,” Giordano said. “That’s not going to happen. “I just think it’s going to be a long recovery.”

At Fulfill, a food bank that serves Monmouth and Ocean counties, demand spiked in September as grocery prices remained above pre-pandemic levels, forcing low-income residents including seniors on fixed incomes to turn to pantries for help, according to a statement by interim co-CEOs Linda Kellner and Jim Kroeze.

Jobless benefits, utility bills

Fulfill, which serves 215,000 people including 70,000 children, expects a “grim” winter as a result of extra jobless benefits ending for many, utility-bill grace periods coming to an end, and rising cases of COVID-19, Kellner said.

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey, the state’s biggest, serving 15 counties, is already on track to  distribute food for a record 93 million meals in its current fiscal year which began on July 1. That’s up from 84 million meals in the last fiscal year, and 50 million in the year before the pandemic began.

Carlos Rodriguez, president of the community food bank, said the increase in food supply is because of the new pandemic wave, the ending of extended jobless benefits, and the uncertainty over whether companies and schools will remain open if infections continue to climb.

“We don’t know when this will go away, the impact of the delta variant on the economy,” he said.

New Jersey’s jobless rate edged down to 7.2% in August, the latest month for which data is available. That’s well below its pandemic high but still about twice the pre-pandemic rate, suggesting that demand for emergency food will remain high for some time.

End of eviction moratorium

If evictions resume when the state’s moratorium ends, more people may turn to food banks as they look for new accommodation, advocates say. “We recognize that rent eats first,” Rodriguez said.

Asked whether the end of the moratorium will affect food demand, Rodriguez said: “We’re hoping it doesn’t but realistically we are expecting that it will.”

The Food Bank of South Jersey, serving four counties, is also anticipating increased demand when the eviction ban ends, said Lavinia Awosanya, its chief development officer.

“We know that the first thing you do is try to secure your household, keep a roof over your children’s head,” she said. “Sometimes food becomes secondary. I will not be surprised for people to need food services if they find themselves in a situation. We’re expecting some of those people to turn to us for assistance.”

Food demand at the Pennsauken-based nonprofit has edged down from its pandemic high but is still 20% above its pre-pandemic level, Awosanya said. Between 2019 and 2021, its spending on food surged by more than 500% because of rising demand, higher food prices, and fewer donations by corporations and individuals. The quantity of community-donated food dropped by 44% over the same period. During 2020 alone, community-donated food fell by 70%, according to food bank data. Its clients include more than 2,000 seniors.

Changes in how food is distributed

Since the pandemic began, the South Jersey food bank has reduced the number of food drives — at which it previously invited donations by corporations and individuals — to cut the number of touches and reduce infection risk, she said.

The Cherry Hill pantry, too, has been forced by the pandemic to stop its clients choosing their own food inside its building. Instead, they pull up their cars outside, and all get identical, pre-packed bags of meat, produce and other groceries placed in their open trunks by staff or volunteers. “There’s no other way to do it when they can’t come in,” Giordano said.

She said about half of the families coming there had never used a food pantry before the pandemic. Most are low-skilled workers like cleaners or handymen who lost their jobs when businesses closed and are now using donated food to help their stretched budgets. Earlier in the pandemic, some clients came from skilled professions but their numbers have dwindled, Giordano said.

Officials at all three food banks said they expect to be able to meet the continued high demand but urged extra support from private and corporate donors of food and money.

“We all want to put the pandemic behind us and get back to some semblance of what we were used to, but the reality is that many families are going to be digging out of this financial crisis for a long time, and we continue to rely on our public and private partners to help us make sure all of our neighbors are fed,” Rodriguez said.

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