Bill Blackmer lost his job in telecommunications on April 18. Blackmer lives with his wife, Mary, and two young daughters in Weymouth, Mass.
“I waited until after dinner, once everything had settled down, to tell her,” he remembers. “Mary didn’t say anything, just grabbed her stomach and took three steps back and sat down.”
He is among tens of millions of Americans who have turned to a local food bank for help after becoming newly food insecure because of the pandemic and its fallout. About 10% of Americans, 22.3 million, reported they sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat within the past week, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse Survey fielded between Aug. 19 and 31. That is up from 18 million before March 13.
Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks, projects a 6 billion to 8 billion meal shortfall in the next 12 months, a deficit that may be magnified with federal food assistance programs set to expire in the coming weeks and months. The Feeding America analysis estimates the total need for charitable food over the next year will reach 17 billion pounds, more than three times last year’s distribution.
At 41, Blackmer says he’s been through quite a bit. His wife has a disability and he has been the primary breadwinner for a number of years. He has suffered from anxiety and depression for some time, once taking unpaid leave for a hospitalization. Since losing his job, he has liquidated his 401(k), used his $1,200 stimulus check to pay down some bills, and opted into a special payment plan with his mortgage lender. But even with the extra $600 per week in unemployment the Cares Act provided, things have been tight.
“Shopping went out the door, we weren’t taking the kids anywhere and wanted to cut down on discretionary spending,” Blackmer says. “There was no dining out, and we took advantage of deals on our credit cards to pay interest only.”
He was introduced to Interfaith Social Services in Quincy, one of the largest emergency food programs in Greater Boston, by his mental health counselor.
“She said, ‘Here’s an application.’ I came back and she said, ‘Yes, we are able to help you, you fit the criteria.’ I am way too exhausted to worry about stigma.”
He says they drive up and a woman with a clipboard and a mask checks them in. They ask if Blackmer needs pet food, baby pull-up diapers or a small birthday cake. About six bags of food get loaded into the trunk — spaghetti sauce and canned fruit, haddock or a whole roaster chicken. He says instead of having empty cupboards every 30 days, they are backfilling a little bit, feeling more secure.
Interfaith looks like a smooth-running machine, Blackmer says, a haven in the maelstrom of the pandemic. The pantry is supplied by the Greater Boston Food Bank, one of the more than 200 organizations in the Feeding America network. And at the food bank things are dire, says Catherine D’Amato, its president.
“It used to be 1 million pounds out the door a week, now it’s 2 to 2.5 million pounds a week,” D’Amato says. “We’re doing more in a month that we did in a year 20 years ago. Food insecurity has gone from 1 in 13 people to 1 in 8 in Eastern Massachusetts, even higher for families with children.”
And it’s not only that need that has ramped up.
Before the pandemic customers walked through and picked out their own items. Requirements for social distancing and contactless handoffs require volunteers to fill prefabricated boxes, a more laborious process. And volunteerism continues to be way down. D’Amato says in a normal year, Greater Boston Food Bank has 24,000 volunteers — about 460 each week. Now, she says, they get 100 to 150 per week. And, nearly seven months into the pandemic, “reclamation product” from grocery stores has diminished dramatically as supermarkets have coped with increased demand and supply-chain glitches.
These challenges to food assistance are not unique to the Boston area.
“I have never seen any circumstances as bizarre and complicated as what we’re seeing right now,” said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force, a food bank and anti-hunger advocacy group in Milwaukee. She says the pandemic has complicated food distribution, especially for those who don’t have transportation or who live in remote areas. Food banks alone cannot be the answer, she says.
Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer of Feeding America, says that in a Feeding America survey launched Sept. 15 and concluded Sept. 28, member food banks reported seeing an average of 56% increase in demand. In August, Feeding America network food banks distributed an estimated 593 million meals, an increase of 64% from a typical pre-pandemic month.
Fitzgerald says natural disasters add additional stress to regional food assistance programs.
“Many food banks are still experiencing lags because of Hurricane Laura or the California wildfires, which requires us to procure even more food to get resources to those particularly strained areas,” she says.
About 5 million schoolchildren live in a household where people can’t afford sufficient food, says Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Pandemic EBT program, a debit-card benefit for households with children who have temporarily lost access to free or reduced-price school meals, is poised to end this week unless President Donald Trump signs new legislation. Last week, the House voted 359-57 to secure an additional $8 billion for nutrition programs, including an extension of Pandemic EBT. The Senate voted Wednesday 84-10 for a continuing resolution that would keep every federal agency running at current funding levels through Dec. 11.
There were about 6 million more participants in SNAP, the food assistance program formerly known as food stamps, in May and June compared with February, says Joseph Llobrera, director of research for food assistance policy for CBPP. The U.S. Agriculture Department has allowed all states to issue emergency supplements to SNAP to bring all households up to the maximum benefit because of pandemic-related economic conditions through the fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30.
Advocates say that while the emergency benefits have alleviated hardship for many, nearly 40% of households already received the SNAP maximum benefit and thus received no increased benefit. Sixteen million low-income people, including 7 million children, got no additional assistance, according to economists at CBPP. Fitzgerald and other advocates have strongly urged a 15% increase in SNAP.
Shortfalls in these programs put extra pressure on food banks during the pandemic. And the effects of these deficits are not just short-term, says Megan Sandel, co-director of the Grow Clinic for Children at Boston Medical Center. She says she has seen a 40% increase in her caseload, with over two-thirds reporting food insecurity.
In the past, Sandel says, it wasn’t unusual for low-income Americans to have to stretch a dollar at the end of the month.
“Now running out of their food budget the second or third week of the month. Parents are going back into the kitchen at mealtime so kids won’t notice that parents aren’t eating themselves,” she says.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Tuesday that more than 100 million food boxes have been distributed to food banks via the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, with a third round of contracts awarded to farmers and distributors earlier this month. However, while some ZIP codes have been well served by this federal program, many others have received no food at all, Fitzgerald says.
“In the first phase, we saw areas that didn’t get any. In the second phase, there was better coverage, but it still varied dramatically by region,” Fitzgerald says. Food banks, as private operations, don’t get federal moneys but are supported by individual donations or corporate dollars, Fitzgerald says. But it’s much more difficult to fundraise during the pandemic.
“The larger food banks, like Boston and Houston, are experiencing greater philanthropy, but smaller ones haven’t had as much success,” she says.
For Blackmer, his local food bank has been a lifeline.
“People start falling through the cracks,” he says. “The volunteers there are incredible, such warmth. We use the word ‘hero’ a lot.”