In April, Seattle’s University District Food Bank thought it had a long enough lifeline to meet the needs of the low-income, North End neighborhoods it serves. It had secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan from our bank, which allowed it to staff up given the increased demand it was seeing.
But how much that need grew — and how quickly — sent shock waves through even the longest-tenured staff, who are no strangers to urban hunger and the microclimates of food deserts that pockmark even the most flourishing cities.
Every aspect of its operations was under pressure: Requests for deliveries from homebound seniors — and everyone else who was newly homebound; requests for lunches normally provided at schools; requests from the newly unemployed. This all came amid the background of stringent new health and safety protocols that upended the food bank’s in-person, off-the-shelf shopping model and overwhelmed its delivery and packing systems. It had to double its hours, increase its staff and recruit new volunteers.
The University District Food Bank is hardly an outlier in this regard. All across the nation, food banks are experiencing a surge of newly hungry, newly needy residents. From Pennsylvania to Nebraska to Louisiana, scenes of miles-long lines of cars waiting for food have become a present-day evocation of Depression-era bread lines.
Beneficial State Bank has made nearly $18 million in PPP loans to Seattle small businesses and nonprofits like the food bank. We have seen firsthand just how big an economic threat this virus poses to our community. While the PPP loans were vital for so many, it was a temporary solution. The federal CARES Act’s $1,200 stimulus checks to regular folks helped forestall evictions and debt defaults, and the $600 supplemental unemployment benefits have helped the unemployed stay afloat. But that money is gone and, almost five months into the pandemic, we are again standing on the precipice of an economic catastrophe that could crush millions of small businesses, nonprofits and workers.
For all its faults and missteps, it’s hard to conceive how much worse shape we would be in if not for the CARES Act. We need our leaders in Washington to act now on another stimulus package that offers more and better relief and is directed at the people who need it the most. Lawmakers are debating a much-needed extension of enhanced unemployment benefits before they run out at the end of the month. With the virus surging, businesses are once again closing or limiting services and many employees will be without full paychecks.
The University District Food Bank’s experience illustrates this perfectly. With government support, it was able to hire people and keep providing services just when people needed them the most. But if that support goes away, jobs will be lost and the food bank will struggle to offer help at the worst possible time.
Without extending the extra unemployment benefits, it is estimated that millions of idled workers will see their incomes drop by 60%, essentially overnight, bringing with it an acceleration of poverty. According to new research from Columbia University’s Poverty Center, poverty levels in the U.S. could be the highest they have been in 50 years, including during the Great Recession. And the rates are expected to rise twice as much among Black Americans, widening already skewed economic disparities.
Congress must act swiftly to pass another relief package that includes additional unemployment benefits for those who aren’t able to work full-time. Our communities cannot afford to see millions of workers plunge into financial catastrophe, or bedrock small businesses go under, or another round of foreclosures and debt default.
And we certainly cannot afford to have a single food bank — the very definition of an essential service — collapse under the weight of our need.