Corina Martinez never expected to find herself in a food bank line.
As a customer service representative for a financial institution in El Paso, Texas, Martinez is usually able to feed her three kids with the help of free school meals. But when the government shut down schools in March as a result of COVID-19, she was out of options.
“It’s terrible to say this, but before, I used to think ‘Oh my God, going to a food bank is so embarrassing, I’m not going,” Martinez, 34, said in an interview with Know Your Value. “Now, I just go.”
These days, Martinez pops over to the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank when she can. She waits in line in her car, and when it’s her turn, she browses the shelves and takes home a cart full of fresh and nutritious food. It has been a lifesaver during the global pandemic.
“You might see someone and not think that person needs it, but they might really need it,” said Martinez, who lives with her husband Edgar, who works as a delivery driver, and her kids who are 2, 13, and 15 years old. “When you really need help, it completely changes everything.”
A national hunger crisis.
Martinez is far from alone. Since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, the line for the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger food bank has grown up to four miles long, according to the bank’s CEO Susan E. Goodell. By June, food distribution from the bank shot up 569 percent year-over-year.
Nationally, an analysis from Feeding America projected that food insecurity will hit 52 million people due to COVID-19, which is an increase of 17 million people from pre-pandemic times. Between March and June, it is estimated that four in 10 visitors to food banks are in need due to COVID-19-related reasons, such as school shutdowns or job loss.
“It’s an economic tradeoff,” said Feeding America’s COO Katie Fitzgerald. “You’ll pay for medicine, rent, your mortgage and your car so you can get to your job before you buy your groceries. People don’t have enough money for the food they need, so they skip meals or eat unhealthy food that’s a lot cheaper. This is what food insecurity looks like in America.”
The severity of the problem varies by state, with Mississippi facing the highest rate of projected food insecurity in 2020. Texas has the highest rate of food insecurity among minors, with 2.3 million children facing hunger in the state.
According to the Center for American Progress, women and people of color have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic across the country. Single-mother households are two-and-a-half times more likely to experience food insecurity than other households, according to Feeding America.
Struggling to keep up with demand.
Food banks are working around the clock to keep up with demand. El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, for example, is seeing an all-time low in volunteers, while donor and government funding can be unpredictable.
“It’s a constant effort to figure out how to feed 138,000 a day,” Goodell said. “We have to be very creative. It’s incredibly stressful when you come to work, and you see miles of cars of people waiting for food and you only have one-and-a-half days [worth] in the food bank.”
Food banks comply with social distancing regulations, which has led to residual issues like social isolation, according to Andrea Johnson, assistant director of the High Plains Food Bank which serves agencies along the Texas Panhandle. Many people, especially seniors, depended on the pre-pandemic food bank to express their needs verbally and interact with other people, she said. The bank also had to eliminate critical community outreach, like nutrition education classes.
“With the grab-and-go drive thru, there’s a part of the human component that we’re missing,” Johnson said.
The future looks grim. Food insecurity will not disappear once the economy recovers, Fitzgerald said. After the 2008 recession, it took about 10 years for food insecurity to drop to pre-2008 levels, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Now, the levels are climbing back up.
“Food insecurity tends to lag behind economic improvements,” said Fitzgerald. “We’re deep in responding to the needs today. But even as the economy recovers, there will be long-term elevated food insecurity until families get on their feet. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
A change in mindset toward hunger.
To help, Americans need to volunteer at their local food banks and donate whatever they can, said Goodell.
Further, the stigma surrounding aid-seekers needs to be eliminated.
“I’ve had to have kind and gentle debates with people who say that people are taking advantage of the system,” Johnson said. “Of course, we’re going to have people take advantage, but right now, we’ve got families of five who can only manage a part-time job.”
The shame trickles down to people who actually need help, said Fitzgerald. Often, they feel like they’ve done something wrong when they’re actually victims of a crisis.
“I’ll never forget a man who lost his job in his 50s and couldn’t look me in the eye, because he used to be a donor and he couldn’t imagine needing a go to a food bank,” Fitzgerald said. “That shame is just because in America, prior to the pandemic, we faulted the person for doing something wrong. I do hope that’s changing. Food insecurity is not something that people deserve.”
Martinez advised people to ask for help without feeling embarrassed.
“Don’t be ashamed. Everybody needs that extra help once in a while,” she said. “It’s there for a reason. It’s there to help.”