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Pandemic of Hunger: Why our food crisis will continue long after COVID-19 is behind us

"The need is much greater than we have ever experienced, so we have to do more."
Feeding Tampa Bay warehouse.
Posted at 1:45 PM, Dec 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-03 18:43:16-05

TAMPA — We aren't there yet. But, at some point, this pandemic will end and be a distant nightmare. However, the long term economic impacts for millions of American families will be felt for years.

Food lines are not going away, and food banks are preparing for a crisis here in Tampa Bay and across the country.

"Post COVID, we are delivering 2 million meals every single week across our 10 counties, and it's important for folks to know that's still not enough that still doesn't meet our entire need," President and CEO of Feeding Tampa Bay, Thomas Mantz, said. "We have more people struggling economically. We have more people who have challenges to their family budget, more folks whose job doesn't pay them enough, and so it's really difficult for families to get by."

PRE-COVID AND POST COVID

Before the pandemic, Mantz said an estimated 600,000 people in the Bay Area were food insecure. Across the 10-county region Feeding Tampa Bay serves, the number is now more than a million-plus. By the end of the year, nonprofit Feeding Tampa Bay is on track to provide 85 million meals. The nonprofit says one in six are adults, one in four are children, and 68% have never been in a food line before.

"COVID has exacerbated all of that made it far worse," Mantz said.

Chances are, if you received donated food in our area, someone at Feeding Tampa Bay's warehouse handled it. They support 500 different agencies providing food directly to the community.

"The good news is we are getting more donated food, we are. That's great news, but it's not nearly enough," Mantz said. "Feeding Tampa Bay has been spending close to a quarter-million dollars a month if not more buying food because the need is much greater than we have ever experienced, so as a result, we have to do more."

Thanksgiving brought out the best of us. We watched as our community held food drive after food drive to get frozen turkeys and hot meals into the homes and stomachs of those in need.

The holidays bring more awareness to food insecurities, but when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Day, many of the same people who needed help during the holidays will need help throughout the year.

"The same number of folks are going to be hungry on January 5 or March 18 or June 23," Mantz said.

NOT JUST A FLORIDA PROBLEM

According to the USDA, more than 35 million people, including nearly 11 million children, lived in food-insecure households before the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent Feeding America analysis found that those numbers could rise to more than 50 million people, including 17 million children, in 2020. With the help of monetary contributions to Feeding America and critical partnerships with donors in the supply chain, the Feeding America network has distributed 4.2 billion meals to this growing number of neighbors facing hunger.

With 11.1 million people in America still unemployed, many turn to the food banks for the first time. Previous food bank surveys revealed that an estimated 40% of people seeking assistance from food banks had never needed help before.

METROPOLITAN MINISTRIES

We visited Metropolitan Ministries a week before Thanksgiving. We watched as kitchen staff raced to prepare food for the upcoming holiday and pack box lunches for hundreds of people in need.

"Because of the pandemic, we've really turned ourselves inside out," President and CEO of Metropolitan Ministries, Tim Marks, said. "We said at the start it was going to be a marathon. We didn't realize how long of a marathon it was going to be a marathon of people in need in crisis."

Metropolitan Ministries doesn't just serve food; they serve hope. Offering meals, housing, financial assistance, and countless other programs help get people back on their feet. Currently, there are 300 children and more than 140 adults living at the nonprofit.

Formed in 1972, the nonprofit has given more help and assistance in 2020 than they've ever done.

For their food box assistance program alone, they see 40% of all families signing up for the first time.

"By the time we finish Christmas morning, it will be about 50,000 food boxes that go out into the community," Marks said. That number is more than double what they served in 2019.

THE SALVATION ARMY

As nonprofits like Feeding Tampa Bay and Metropolitan Ministries focus their efforts on food, the Salvation Army is shifting gears and using its resources in other parts of the community.

"There are some great partners in the community who are doing a great job with food drives and helping get food to people who are in need what we are concentrating on are those people who are wanting to get out of homelessness," Captain Andy Miller said.

More than 500 people are housed at shelters run by the Salvation Army. Miller said the emergency and traditional housing helps get people off the streets and into training programs to land jobs.

"The way we help people out of poverty the way we help people out of hunger and homelessness is we help them develop the skills and answers we believe God's put inside of them so they can be the people he's called them to be," Miller said.

With less foot traffic at significant retailers, Miller is concerned they won't raise enough money to help everyone in need. The Salvation Army launched a new program called Rescue Christmas to hold virtual kettle drives.

"What we are trying to do is get people into the programs that will help them beat homelessness, beat addiction, beat poverty, beat hunger in the long term. So, ultimately investing in them. That's where we are going to beat hunger."

2021 and BEYOND

Feeding Tampa Bay also offers free training to help pull people out of the unemployment line. Their FRESHforce program is an excellent resource for anyone looking to develop a new skill.

Those programs help a lot of people, but not everyone. The latest statistics from the Department of Labor shows 11.1 million Americans are unemployed as the virus rages and more businesses are forced to close. The need to feed families will likely last through 2021 and beyond.

"We've advised our board, and we would suggest to the community that we have a rough couple of years ahead of us," Mantz said. "Even if there is a vaccine tomorrow, which we hope for, even if there is an economic recovery tomorrow; which we hope for. It takes a long time for those we serve to make it all the way back."