As the 2021 holidays approach, thousands of Californians remain jobless due to the pandemic. That means more and more people can't buy the food they need — a situation known as food insecurity.
For many individuals and families, food banks offer a crucial lifeline, offering free food.
Across the Bay Area, food banks are racing to keep up with increased demand — but are grappling with the same rising food costs that are affecting the communities they serve.
Read on for facts about food banks, how things have changed during the pandemic, how to find a food bank near you and what you can do to help.
Demand for food banks is still high ...
In just four months, the COVID pandemic — and all its impacts — will have been with us for two years. But this doesn't mean the need for food banks and the service they provide has been greatly lessened.
In fact, "despite some significant return to normalcy for much of the community, need for our food bank and various food banks-wide is not much less than it was last year," says Mike Altfest, director of community engagement and marketing at the Alameda County Community Food Bank.
"We are still seeing what I would call unprecedented need for food bank assistance these days," Altfest says. And the evidence, he notes, is in the amounts of food his organization is still distributing.
"Before the pandemic, our food bank was distributing about two-and-a-half million pounds of food per month. And that is now consistently over four-and-a-half-million pounds per month. And that hasn't changed much since last year," he says. "We're still steadily millions of pounds per month over what we were before the pandemic."
A housing crisis, continuing gentrification and high cost of living mean the Bay Area is particularly vulnerable to food insecurity.
Many folks using food banks in the Bay Area during the pandemic are coming to them for the first time — a testament to how the pandemic-induced economic crisis is disproportionately affecting low-wage workers.
... and food banks, like communities, are hit by rising costs
Food banks already dealing with increased demand from families sidelined by the pandemic now face a new challenge: surging food prices and supply chain issues walloping the nation.
The higher costs and limited availability mean some families may get smaller servings or substitutions for staples such as peanut butter, which some food banks are buying for nearly double what it cost two years ago.
"What happens when food prices go up is, food insecurity for those who are experiencing it just gets worse," says Katie Fitzgerald, president and chief operating officer of Feeding America, a nonprofit organization that coordinates the efforts of more than 200 food banks across the country.
Food banks that expanded to meet unprecedented demand brought on by the pandemic won't be able to absorb forever food costs that are two to three times what they used to be, she says.
Supply chain disruptions, lower inventory and labor shortages all have contributed to increased costs for charities on which tens of millions of people in the U.S. rely for nutrition. Donated food is more expensive to move because transportation costs are up, and bottlenecks at factories and ports make it difficult to get goods of all kinds.
"The cost of a trip to the grocery store is going up. It was already prohibitively expensive for a lot of people ... So food banks right now, we're absorbing a lot of that cost for the community," says Altfest.
The cost of canned green beans and peaches is up nearly 9%, he says — and canned tuna and frozen tilapia are up more than 6%. A case of 5-pound frozen chickens for holiday tables is up 13%. The price for dry oatmeal has climbed 17%.
"We're spending more money to get food to make sure that other people don't have to spend that money and that they're able to keep a healthy meal on the table," says Altfest.
Food insecurity's impacts are unequal
As NPR reported in 2020, Black and Latino communities in the U.S. have been disproportionately affected by the food insecurity that drives the need for food banks.
According to 2019 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over 19% of Black households and over 15% of Latino households experienced food insecurity in 2019. In that same period, white households fell below the national average of about 10%, with fewer than 8% experiencing food insecurity.
In addition, adults who have a disability — especially those who are not in the workforce — experience more than twice the rate of food insecurity as adults who do not have a disability, NPR reports.
Donate your time
If you don't need the services of a food bank right now, and you have time to spare, you might consider volunteering at a local food bank.
During the first year of the pandemic, some food banks, including the Alameda County Community Food Bank, paused their volunteer programs due to COVID risks — but now, vaccines mean many of those in-person opportunities have returned.
Alameda County Community Food Bank has "brought back our volunteer force pretty much similar to what it was before the pandemic," says Altfest. But he says that "a lot" of other Bay Area food banks are "still struggling to fill all of our volunteer shifts and all of the volunteer needs out in the community."
Altfest acknowledges that there might still be "some reticence out there" on the part of potential volunteers because of concerns about COVID risks. But several Bay Area food banks now require volunteers to be fully vaccinated or provide proof of negative COVID status before taking on shifts.
For example, the Alameda food bank requires that all volunteers are either vaccinated or provide a negative COVID test taken in the 72 hours before their shift. Second Harvest of Silicon Valley requires volunteers sorting food in their warehouse to be fully vaccinated, although they say vaccination is not required to work at one of their outdoor distribution sites, or for home-delivery volunteers.
If you're planning on volunteering at a food bank this holiday season, check their vaccination requirements but also expect potential rules including wearing face coverings and gloves, and maintaining social distance. If you're nervous about volunteering in person during the pandemic, speak with someone at the food bank you're thinking of supporting and ask them about their COVID safety procedures.
And remember, if you're not able to volunteer in person for whatever reason ...
If you can't donate your time, rest assured: Your donated dollars will go a long way.
"These holiday months are critical for food banks in terms of our funding," says Altfest.
"We are going to raise about 60% of our budget this holiday season," he says. "That equates to about 30 million meals. So we need to make sure that we take advantage of this time, and hit the new year well prepared to serve our community well into next year."
Donating money might also be more effective than donating food in helping your local food bank acquire and bring food to those it serves: When the pandemic hit in 2020, it changed the way many food banks solicit and accept food donations due to the risks of spreading COVID-19 — and you still might not see as many food drive collection barrels in stores this holiday season.
Donating money rather than food gives food banks far more flexibility. Second Harvest, for example, is able to negotiate special deals for the food it buys "by the truckload" — at a "much better value than you could get if you went to Costco or Safeway," said Second Harvest CEO Leslie Bacho in a 2020 KQED Forum interview.
"Food banks are extraordinarily efficient organizations," says Altfest. "For every dollar that we get, we're able to provide two meals. And during this time of year, there's a lot of matches as well. So often [donors] are able to stretch those dollars and ... provide for four meals."
Put simply, food banks know how to make your cash go a long way when it comes to buying food — almost certainly further than if you donated food yourself.
If you've previously donated food directly to a local food bank, and are set on doing so again, remember that they may have changed the way they accept these donations because of COVID-19.
How to sign up to help
The quickest way to offer your support is by visiting your local food bank's website and signing up there to volunteer or make a donation.