As Food Banks Feed Families in Crisis Now, Help Is Needed For The Future
Lafayette’s Food Finders Food Bank has been ramping up its distribution across west central Indiana, as rising unemployment driven by the COVID-19 pandemic forces families to food pantries. But families will need other solutions for their food needs, now and in the future.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, a long line of cars starts and stops and slowly winds its way around Lafayette’s Linwood Elementary School.
Members of the National Guard lift and carry food boxes to pack into car trunks -- 40 pounds of meat, dairy, produce, and canned goods. Food Finders has served a total of 8,771 households at the Linwood mobile pantry since it began in mid-March. The food bank also started running two mobile pantries in each of the 16 counties it covers, instead of just one.
But Food Finders CEO Katy Bunder says she’s even more focused on how to feed families in the future.
“I’m making a plan and more focused on the recession that’s going to follow the pandemic,” Bunder says.
Over 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment as of this week. Bunder says the food crisis will continue as long as high unemployment persists in Indiana -- and she worries that people will forget that food banks and the families they serve will need support after the immediate emergency is over.
“That’s when we really need to even step up more, and get prepared to feed people for months,” Bunder says.
Emily Weikert Bryant is the executive director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, part of the national food bank network Feeding America. She says Hoosier food banks have seen a big jump in the number of households seeking food assistance -- according to her numbers, a 160 percent weekly increase, starting in mid-March. Weikert Bryant says that could be partly because many smaller pantries are temporarily closed, so more people are coming directly to food banks. She also says successfully feeding families depends upon more than just what food banks can give.
“Part of what we’re looking at is not just the charitable sector, but how do federal nutrition programs respond?” Weikert Bryant says.
Weikert Bryant says programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, need to expand what’s offered. Hunger advocacy groups want to see a 15% boost to maximum SNAP benefit amounts, an increase to minimum SNAP benefits from $16 to $30, and a rollback of eligibility rules that restrict access to SNAP.
“Boosting SNAP benefits is really the key for promoting that public health and that economic activity,” Weikert Bryant says.
Food Finders is part of a Google referral program that sends local SNAP applicants in their direction. Food Finders SNAP outreach coordinator Kevin Boyd says he typically gets about 77 Google SNAP referrals a month; he received more than double that in March, and he thinks April could be even higher. Boyd does his SNAP outreach these days at the mobile pantries, walking up to people’s cars. He says he talks to people who've seen a sudden and drastic change to their finances. Some are enthusiastic about applying for SNAP and getting the extra help.
But Boyd says it's not that way for everyone.
“You can see the pain in people’s faces,” Boyd says. “I’m kind of touching a raw nerve by asking about it. You know -- there’s an embarrassment, there’s a stigma -- there’s all sort of range of emotions of people that have been thrown into a new normal, for the time being.”
This week, Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration Secretary Jennifer Sullivan cited a 253 percent increase in statewide SNAP applications. In April, a temporary increase in benefits kicked in for Hoosier SNAP users, allowing them to receive the maximum benefits for their household size. The state has also announced that families with children who receive free or reduced price school lunches will receive money through SNAP during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And at Food Finders, Katy Bunder says she has the money and the manpower to keep running two mobile pantries in each of the food bank’s counties through May.