Early one morning in mid-November, Trisha Cunningham, the president of North Texas Food Bank, arrived at a sprawling fairground in southern Dallas that hosts the annual Texas State Fair. Four lines of cars snaked for miles, from the entrance toward the skyscrapers downtown. Some of the drivers had arrived the night before and slept in their cars, waiting for a box of food that would help get them through Thanksgiving.
By the end of this year, more than 50 million people could experience food insecurity, according to Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger-relief organization. That’s one in six Americans and one in four children—nearly a 50 percent increase from 2019. A Northwestern University study in June found that food needs had doubled nationally, and tripled for households with children. The pandemic has laid bare how many people are one paycheck or medical bill away from hunger.
In October, Feeding America’s network of food banks and pantries distributed some 548 million meals, up 52 percent from an average month before the pandemic. In November, with the holidays approaching, it may be more. When the fairgrounds gates opened in Dallas, volunteers waved cars through rows of orange cones to receive a 15-pound box of produce, dry goods, a frozen turkey, and a loaf of bread. In a typical year, the North Texas Food Bank holiday distribution serves around 500 people. This year, when the gates closed, they’d sent 8,500 people home with more than half a million pounds of food. Before the pandemic, the food bank’s clientele were largely employed people who needed extra help to make ends meet. Now, many of them told Cunningham they’d lost their jobs. And a third of those being served, she estimates, had never needed assistance before.
“People are seeing hunger like they’ve never seen it before,” she says.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, the 13 counties served by the North Texas Food Bank had measured the lowest levels of food insecurity since the 2008 recession. Today the number served has risen by almost one-third. To meet the demand, an additional 90 semi-trucks loaded with food arrive each month. Identical scenes are playing out in cities, towns, and rural regions across America—particularly where there's the most racial diversity.
Black, Native, and Hispanic communities are being disproportionately impacted
“This is a story about racial and ethnic disparities—both food insecurity and the story of coronavirus,” says Emily Engelhard, managing director of Feeding America’s research unit. “The populations and geographies that started in the most disadvantageous state of food insecurity are the ones that are getting hit the hardest.”
The most acute needs are in areas where the majority of residents are Black or Native American. Of the top 25 counties with the highest projected food insecurity rates, only four—all in Kentucky—are majority white.
The image of queuing Texans conjures memories of the breadlines winding through city streets during the Great Depression, the national crisis that birthed federal safety nets like Social Security, unemployment insurance, and housing assistance. The Great Depression sparked “a measurable shift in attitudes, from rugged individualism to more cooperative means of dealing with crisis,” says David Kennedy, a history professor at Stanford University.
Still, nearly a century later, the cracks are large enough for tens of millions of Americans to slip through and pantries are running low. Food banks are waiting for the federal government to pass another stimulus package that will allow them to continue feeding Americans.
Before the pandemic, the North Texas Food Bank had aimed to distribute 92 million meals by 2025. By June, they’d already surpassed that target. Based on forecasts of the economic recovery, Cunningham expects to distribute food at this rate for the next two years. They recently ran out of food for the first time.
“Food banks were designed to be supplemental—to fill the gaps,” Cunningham says. Instead, they’ve become a crucial part of survival for millions of Americans. “There are so many more gaps in our community right now.”