Covid-19 is widely thought to have triggered the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, surpassing the Great Recession that caused significant hardship just over 10 years ago — the problem of hunger vividly displayed by food lines across America these past eight months.
Earlier this month, Feeding America released a forecast of the total population in food-insecure households based on projected changes to annual unemployment and poverty resulting from the pandemic. In Feeding America’s definition, this “assumes a national annual unemployment rate of 11.5% (7.6 percentage points higher than 2018) and a national annual poverty rate of 16.6% (4.8 percentage points higher than 2018).”
The American Communities Project examined these numbers county by county and distilled the percentages into the 15 community types in the graphics below. Hit the hardest in percentage are communities of color — Native American Lands, the African American South, and Hispanic Centers — as well as the mostly white Evangelical Hubs and Working Class Country.
“Every food bank, whether they serve urban, suburban, or rural hunger, was impacted by Covid-19 with its widespread health and economic impact. You cannot prepare for that, but food banks have responded. This is what we do — we stand in the gap for those who need our help,” says Trisha Cunningham, president and CEO of the North Texas Food Bank, which serves 13 counties: the Big City of Dallas; Navarro in the African American South; the Exurbs of Denton, Collin, Rockwall, Kaufman, and Ellis; and the Evangelical Hubs of Fannin, Hunt, Grayson, Lamar, Delta, and Hopkins.
Covering 10,000 square miles in area, the North Texas Food Bank ended its fiscal year in June providing nearly 97 million meals — 5 million more than its 2025 goal, and 12 million more than anticipated before Covid. Today, NTFB is providing access to 10-11 million meals per month versus a prior year rate of 7-8 million.
In a wide-ranging interview, the ACP asked Cunningham about the scope of the problem in her area, how she and her team have been managing, who’s helping, what’s working, and what worries them this winter. Our edited exchange is below.
Ari Pinkus: Could you describe what you’re seeing in your community and hearing from customers you serve now? How does this compare with communities near you?
Trisha Cunningham: We hear from our network of 200+ partner agencies that clients they serve are understandably worried and stressed. Many have lost jobs or have seen reduced hours. And there is so much uncertainty around not just the virus itself, but around employment, government assistance programs and schools, on which many children and families rely on for meals.
But our clients are also extremely grateful, resilient, and strong. They often must make difficult choices, such as buying groceries one week or paying a utility bill or filling a prescription, and many were facing these challenges even before the pandemic.
According to Covid-related projections from Feeding America, NTFB’s service area has the second highest number of food insecure people in Texas (behind Houston).
Pinkus: How have the demographics of people you serve changed in the pandemic? Could you talk about the increased need?
Cunningham: Pre-pandemic data reflected the lowest food insecurity rates seen since before the Great Recession. However, the coronavirus pandemic is going to change these numbers in all 50 states, including Texas. Feeding America projects one in five North Texans may struggle with hunger this year, including one in four children. This encompasses almost 900,000 individuals.
Texas is projected to have one of the highest rates of food-insecure children in the country by the end of 2020 — a staggering number of 2.1 million children. This is a 28.7% food insecurity rate, up from 21.6% in 2018.
At the North Texas Food Bank, we have always served the working poor, children and families, and vulnerable populations such as seniors, veterans, disabled individuals, and the homeless. The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges that many people were already facing. At the same time, we have also seen that approximately 40% of individuals nationally are new to charitable food assistance, including many in North Texas.
Overall, we are distributing about double of what we did pre-pandemic. This demonstrates both the depths of the hunger needs that had already existed in our area and the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on food insecurity and hunger.
Pinkus: How have you changed your staffing and practices to meet this new demand, and what Covid-19 precautions are you taking?
Cunningham: At the onset of the pandemic, we flipped our business model to provide nutritious kitted boxes of food that could be delivered in a low- to no-touch method.
This required more labor to kit the boxes at a time when we had to halt our traditional volunteer operations. Many staff members hit the production floor to sort and pack boxes and to distribute foods at our mobile distributions. As our community’s needs increased, we tried to exhaust all resources and applied for Texas National Guard support. A small group is with us through December 2020.
Times of crisis also spawn innovation. A partnership spearheaded by our board chair brought together funders through the Communities Foundation of Texas and technology through the company Shiftsmart, which is helping displaced hospitality workers be paid to fill the vacated volunteer roles at local nonprofits. The North Texas Food Bank was the initial pilot and the model has expanded nationwide. It is a win-win that we will continue to use as long as there is community support. We are excited to have opened back up limited volunteer opportunities for external groups that operate under strict health and safety precautions.
We ramped up our own direct service through mobile distributions in areas of highest needs across the 13 counties we serve. These distributions are done drive-thru style to implement social distancing practices, and we have received tremendous feedback from the community, with our efforts in Fair Park in South Dallas serving as the largest scale mobile pantries to date (see pictures).
Pinkus: What federal, state, and local support has your organization received? Are you receiving support from unexpected places?
Cunningham: We have received overwhelming support from our elected officials. Since day one, we have ensured they were involved in understanding how we are working in their areas and where they can use their connections to help get their communities increased access to food.
Direct support has come through a few channels. We accessed emergency funds due to the emergency disaster declarations at the local, state, and federal levels. State of Texas Assistance Requests allowed the emergency feeding network to access funds to purchase food and supplies directly from the food supply market. Additionally, this request allowed us to access workforce support by the National Guard after we lost most of our volunteers.
We also benefited from the CARES and Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
The USDA created a short-term program that created grocery food boxes to ease truck-to-trunk style distributions keeping everyone safe and to help get more food out into the community.
We are also grateful to our Texas State Agencies who have issued multiple waivers that have increased SNAP and Emergency Food access. These waivers have increased the flexibility of requirements, removed barriers, and simplified many processes.
Honestly, we could not have met the food needs without the support of these programs. One of our greatest concerns now is how we can support the long-term needs. We have not seen any drop in demand, but many of the government programs are slated to stop by the end of 2020.
Pinkus: What policies have been most helpful to you?
- Simplifying the TEFAP intake form, the form required for households to receive emergency food from the USDA. This simplified form helped allow many of our partner agency-led and our own mobile distributions by reducing the 2-page intake form down to four simple questions, and not requiring a signature, thereby keeping everyone safe from direct interactions.
- SNAP flexibility – Virtual online application assistance and waiving work requirements allowed so many who either could not leave their house or had lost their jobs to access SNAP benefits and purchase meals for their own families.
Pinkus: What constitutes a meal, and how do you ensure healthy food options for customers?
Cunningham: We follow Feeding America’s guidelines that 1.2 pounds of food equals 1 meal. We have a dedicated nutrition team with whom we consulted when putting the kitted boxes together to ensure the contents were well-balanced and nutritious.
From the onset of the pandemic through October, 93% of the food distributed has been nutritious (NTFB utilizes the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as its primary guide in determining what is considered a nutritious item).
We have been focused on our produce distribution for years, and it is especially important now. The Food Bank works to source fresh produce from local and national growers and rescues unsold produce from grocery store retailers. Produce is distributed through a variety of sites and programs, including NTFB Partner Agencies, the School Pantry program, and our Mobile Pantry program. Distributing these delicate products requires refrigerated warehouse space, refrigerated trucks, and an investment in manual labor to get the products out quickly.
During Covid-19, our Nutrition Services team revamped its services to include a robust online and virtual presence, including cooking demonstration videos that coordinate with our kitted food boxes, online recipes, and targeted virtual workshops for children, seniors, and families.
Pinkus: What are your biggest worries heading into the holiday season and the winter?
Cunningham: We know that having access to a holiday meal is important to all families. Hunger is a year-round issue, and we are always working to address this. We are working with our partner agencies to ensure they have the food they need for the expected increased demand and to distribute food as safely and efficiently as possible, including our mobile pantry distributions which will continue through the holidays. As more people gather indoors with the winter weather, we could see an increase in Covid-19 cases, which leads to further economic and financial impact on already struggling neighbors.
The holidays are also normally our busiest time for fundraising. We are working to ensure a strong fundraising season so we can continue to support the increased need in our community.
Pinkus: How do Americans’ plans to stockpile food affect what you see at your food bank?
Cunningham: Early in the pandemic, we all heard stories of empty shelves in local stores. With higher demand, supply was very tight, and everyone was vying for the same resources — shelf stable and canned foods. This led to a strain in the supply chain and our partners could not donate as much as they normally do. It also led to higher prices and longer lead times. We have had to purchase more food items to maintain the inventory necessary to meet the increased demand.
Pinkus: To what degree are you receiving increased donations in money and/or food from Americans who see their neighbors and fellow citizens in greater need?
Cunningham: North Texas has always been an extremely giving community, and this has been true as we work through the most substantial crisis we have ever faced. We used to say that hunger was a hidden issue, but I do not think it is hidden any longer. Because of that, thousands of our neighbors (and beyond) are donating for the first time. This is alongside our steadfast supporters who have trusted us and empowered us for years.
The estimated value of the NTFB Covid response through October was $47.2 million. This is costly but vital for our community. We know the impact of this crisis will continue at a high level long after the stories of families seeking food assistance have left the public eye. We are incredibly grateful for the outpouring of community support we have seen over the past few months.
Pinkus: How are you seeing this crisis as an opening to educate your community around food insecurity and dispel misconceptions?
Cunningham: The emergency food safety net has been around for quite some time, but it has always been a challenge to convince everyone that it is necessary and must be fully supported. What Covid-19 has allowed is for those of us in the anti-hunger space to demonstrate that the large federal and state programs that fight hunger not only work but should be able to be accessed by all.
Many families have found themselves in a new situation in which they did not plan to be, but long-standing anti-hunger programs are helping them get food on the table in a crisis, just like they are designed to do. Fighting hunger is a nonpartisan issue, and I think we can all agree no one deserves to be hungry.