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How Feeding America Is Fighting the ‘Perfect Storm’ of Food Shortages During the Coronavirus Pandemic

4 minute read

Since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered gyms, restaurants, retail shops, and other businesses across the country, more than 36 million Americans have signed up for unemployment insurance. Still on the hook for rent, car notes and utility bills, some of those newly jobless have felt they had little choice but to purchase less food.

Feeding America—the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization—is there to fill the gap. In a TIME 100 Talks interview with TIME senior editor Haley Sweetland Edwards, CEO Claire Babineaux-Fontenot said demand for the charity’s services has increased as much as 200% at some of its partner food banks.

But as Americans face economic hurdles that lead them to food charities like Babineaux-Fontenot’s, the organization is facing challenges of its own: Global supply chain shortages have made it difficult for food manufacturers to give away food to nonprofits, as they struggle to ship enough food to grocery chains that can pay for it. The food charities are also serving more clients with fewer volunteers, since many who normally offer their time are elderly and thus more susceptible to severe COVID-19 symptoms.

“Of the two million volunteers that we have around the United States in normal times, they are inordinately elderly. If they’re at high risk, it would be imprudent, inappropriate and unsafe for them to continue to provide food,” Babineaux-Fontenot said. “I sometimes refer to this as a perfect storm because we have increased demand. We have decreased supply. And we also have a decrease in volunteers.”

The downtick in volunteers and food donations comes as Feeding America has had to completely rework its distribution method. “Ordinarily, the most efficient way to provide people with food is to gather a lot of people in a place where there’s a lot of food, and then quickly distribute it out to people. We’re not able to do that in this environment, because that’s not safe,” Babineaux-Fontenot said.

But Feeding America is rolling with the punches. The organization has shifted its distribution model to primarily serve clients through low-contact drive-throughs. And since low-income children are often dependent on free and reduced-price meals provided by their schools, which are closed, Babineaux-Fontenot says some of its partner food banks and pantries are delivering food based on children’s bus routes. “These are not efficient ways. It’s not the way you build an efficient supply chain,” she acknowledges. “But we’re very, very focused on making certain that we’re doing it in a safe way. And that we’re getting to where the needs are.”

The logistical hurdles alongside the spike in need are estimated to cost the network “$1.5 billion of negative impact” in the first six months of the crisis, according to Babineaux-Fontenot. But the CEO says she’s most worried about how the virus’s economic impact on families will extend beyond that.

“My biggest concern is actually not what we’re going to do in the immediate,” she says. “My concern is what’s going to happen when the cameras are gone. It is likely that another 20 million people are going to be food insecure. It’s likely that most of them are going to be kids and the elderly, and I just really hope that we remember them.”

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields sharing their ideas for navigating the pandemic. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

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Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com