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7 min read

How To Meet Surging Demand At Food Banks

May 6, 2020

person delivering food

Demand is up. Supply is down. How can you help beat food insecurity and hunger during COVID-19?

You’ve no doubt seen the increasingly alarming coverage in the national media about the desperate situation faced by food banks across the U.S. From NBC to The Atlantic, the stories just seem to get more concerning as this pandemic continues. Astronomical increases in demand, often from people for whom it’s the first time tapping into these safety nets. Restaurant closures making it impossible to funnel gifts over to the pantries. Grocery stores cleaned out by nervous consumers, halting their usual donations. A loss of volunteers, and disruption to the traditional methods of volunteering with food banks and pantries.

Feeding America estimates that an additional $1.4 billion in resources will be needed for the next 6 months to continue operations and provide the food needed to those struggling with hunger. That’s a 30% increase to the baseline six-month operating costs of 200 member food banks across the country. The team there conducted a survey of the nation’s food banks in March that puts it all in stark perspective:

  • 98% report increased demand for food assistance
  • 59% report having less inventory
  • 95% report higher operational expenses… and 37% reported an immediate critical funding shortfall


The Food Supply Chain Upended

In VolunteerMatch’s home state of California — and in most other states across the nation — the need for food is surging, while our nation’s farmers are experiencing a significant decrease in the demand for their produce. 

California Governor Gavin Newsom made a recent public commitment to change this equation, saying, “We want to address that mismatch in…supply and demand.” 

Acknowledging that farmers and ranchers are seeing a 50% decrease in demand for their goods, while food banks are experiencing a 73% increase, he announced a monthly goal to give 21 million pounds of fresh produce, along with other commodities, to food banks. A tax credit will also be given to the farmers for providing the food.

While progressive policies like this have been met with mixed reviews, we at VolunteerMatch feel encouraged to see such cross-sector partnerships, which feel so vital in addressing these large-scale challenges. 


A Massive Volunteer Shortage

Not only has COVID-19 made glaring the mismatch in the actual chain of our food supply, so too has it highlighted the need for a fresh look at how we recruit and engage the volunteer pool that serve at our nation’s food banks. 

From our own research, we learned early on in this crisis that the heavy reliance on our elders and on corporate volunteers was proving devastating to the volunteer supply. A friend from San Francisco-Marin Food Bank told us in March that they had seen cancellations of up to one-third their volunteers almost straight out of the gate as news began spreading about the contagion. Most corporate volunteers, who have become a real mainstay at our food banks, saw their activities paused or cancelled immediately as “non-essential” meetings.

Equally, many older Americans, identified as a vulnerable population under COVID-19 guidance offered by the CDC, have expressed concerns about being exposed to COVID-19 while volunteering or engaging in other activities outside the home, and as such, have decided to cancel their activities for now. In some states, these same volunteer groups may be further restricted from service under lingering stay-at-home mandates that emphasize stricter rules for those over age 65. And exposure concerns were not limited to our older community members: research VolunteerMatch conducted in March revealed that 43% of volunteers expressed a fear of being exposed to illness and 33% of exposing others to illness.

The pandemic has urgently highlighted a need to re-think how we engage with populations who typically serve on-site, and enjoy regular schedules, such as those at our libraries, pantries and food banks. While states like Washington and California are using the help of the National Guard and the Conservation Corps to fill the volunteer gap, this is not a long-term solution. 

And a long-term solution is what we need to be aiming for: Head of the California Association of Food Banks, Stacia Hill Levenfeld said on a recent Facebook Live with California Volunteers, “We don’t expect the demand for interest in food to drop off anytime soon. This is a long term situation and the need for volunteers will be crucial as the months go on.”

67% of Food Banks, according to the study previously cited by Feeding America, are currently accepting and are in need of volunteers.


Safer Volunteering Is Available As Food Banks Adapt Programs To CDC Guidelines

Based on the many natural concerns expressed by volunteers and community leaders, food banks have been among the lead innovators in the space, rapidly adapting programs and creating new services to meet CDC guidelines and ensure confidence in their constituents and volunteers. 

The San Francisco-Marin Food Bank developed pop-up pantries using open spaces like parking lots to practice physical distancing.

Many food banks are also distributing food via low contact methods like drive-thru distribution where people wear masks and gloves as they load cars with food, or even home delivery. They follow CDC guidelines by limiting the number of volunteers in each room when filling boxes.


How Can You Help?

VolunteerMatch is working hard to ensure we have a consistent base of searchable opportunities at local food banks, and we’d encourage you as an individual to search and look for inspirational ways to connect. Currently, there are over 15,000 opportunities including drivers, distributing and passing out food, sorting, re-stocking and packing.

During this time it’s also important to also look at what you can realistically do. Some people have more time, while others have less time in the day. Ultimately, it’s about determining where it makes sense for you. It could mean that you commit to smaller amounts of time at the beginning or you may decide that the best solution for you is to donate money or food to the food banks. If we all do our part to help fill this large gap, we could make large strides in closing the gap.

If you’re thinking as an organization, what can you do? 

Again, VolunteerMatch can be a great resource to your team to help identify what the gaps are at your local food bank and can help you identify how you can best fill those gaps with expertise, space or donations based on where your organization is at now.

Do you have vans or trucks that could be used to distribute food? Warehouse space that could be used? Unused food that could be donated? Technology that could help with processes? Relationships with farmers where you could connect them with food banks and possibly help with distribution, packaging or other logistics that your organization has the resources to fulfill?

There are numerous ways to engage during these unusual times, and food bank leaders have expressed that the help is welcome and needed.


Inspirational Leaders To Look To: Let’s Come Together!

It can feel overwhelming to pivot — whatever side of this equation you find yourself on. We’ve been inspired by some organizations who have taken on this cause and wanted to share a few of those stories here:

Starbucks is helping to support food banks in a variety of ways. The company donated $1 million to Feeding America for COVID-19 response fund, and, also looked for other ways for how resources could help food banks more quickly. Starbucks stepped up to lend some of their trucks and logistics capacity and donating 62,000 gallons of milk and 700,000 meals to the U.S. and Canadian food banks.

Unilever has been another star in this space — donating more than $8 million of products to food banks within the U.S. The organization also has a “national day of service” on May 21, where it will produce and deliver these products, worth as much as $12 million.

Finally, from outside the food industry, Subaru of America is partnering with Feeding America in providing 50 million meals within the U.S., and working to support food banks with 600-plus dealerships in the US via food drives, donations, and volunteering. And, International Paper donated thousands of boxes to southern California food banks. It’s about talking with your local food bank and learning how you can help them overcome any challenges with the system.

Let’s come together as individuals and organizations to support the food banks and our communities in this critical time. Whether we donate talent, time, money or food, we are being called to help our most vulnerable populations and to serve our communities where they need it most. I hope you will join us in being a part of the solution.



Volunteering During COVID-19 EBook

A Compilation Of Quantitative And Qualitative Data On Volunteering During COVID-19

Get insights into the new reality of volunteering during and beyond COVID-19 with early findings from the growing body of knowledge we are assembling — part of a series we’ll continue to pulse on over the coming months. Plus, a few tips on what to be aware of when shaping your programs.

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Laura Plato

Written by Laura Plato