By Emily Williams
Hunger was here in Alabama before the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2019, research conducted by the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama showed that more than 232,000 children, seniors, veterans and neighbors in Central Alabama are food insecure. When it comes to buying food, many clients stated that they had to choose between buying enough food for their household or paying for things such as medicine, utilities, transportation and rent/housing.
COVID-19 has simply increased the demand for food bank services.
Looking back at early March, Community Food Bank of Central Alabama Executive Director Elizabeth Wix said it feels as if the community shut down overnight.
“Once the first whispers of shutdowns began and people began cleaning out grocery store shelves, I think we saw another increase,” Wix said. “Then, once things became scarce in stores, we really saw the need jump up.”
While the food bank’s programs serve 12 counties in Central Alabama, Jefferson County accounts for its largest food insecure population. According to 2017 data from Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study, Jefferson County had a food insecure population of 117,600, 17.8% of the population.
Many members of the community that the food bank’s initiatives serve live paycheck to paycheck; they don’t have the financial ability to stockpile for potential quarantine.
“Additionally, many people lost jobs overnight or had their hours significantly cut back,” Wix said. “Many of the calls we get now are from folks who are seeking food assistance for the very first time.”
The organization does have a disaster response program in place to provide emergency food and water or set up temporary food pantries in response to crises, but such response is for situations akin to a natural disaster.
“The pandemic was very different than a fire or tornado,” Wix said. “There really was no ‘playbook,’ so to speak.
“We worked closely with Feeding America to learn from other food banks in harder hit areas to prepare as much as possible for what was coming our way.”
To meet the need, the organization had to change the way it typically serves the community. There could not be large groups of volunteers working an assembly line in a gymnasium to pack meals, nor could those in need line up at gym doors to receive meals.
“We had to convert distributions to outdoor drive-through models so that clients could stay safe in their vehicles and volunteers could keep a safe distance from one another,” Wix said.
In a matter of weeks, the food bank has expanded its mobile food banks from four locations to 16 locations throughout central Alabama.
Seniors in Particular Risk
The food bank serves many seniors, who are among the highest at risk of death due to COVID-19, so safety has been of the highest priority when organizing the food bank’s response.
“We worked with our partner agencies who serve seniors to provide doorstep-drop deliveries when possible, to avoid exposure,” Wix said.
Some of the pickup sites for the organization’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which serves seniors, shut down due to the pandemic. Thus, seniors affected were connected to other pick-up sites and were distributed months of food so that they would not have to put themselves at further risk by traveling to the site multiple times.
When asked what members of the community can do to support the organization’s efforts, Wix said the best help is to do your part to flatten the curve.
She asked the community to stay at home, wash your hands and, when you have to go out, keep your distance from others.
“We have got to work together to do everything it takes to get past this virus,” she said.
Making a donation on the food bank’s website is another great way to help out.
“We cannot have volunteers in our warehouse right now, but if you want to volunteer at a mobile pantry distribution, you can sign up online as well,” Wix said. “These are no-contact, drive-through distributions where volunteers place groceries in participants’ trunks/cargo areas.”
Finally, Wix said it’s important to check on your neighbors, because you may never know someone is in need until you ask.
“You don’t have to come in contact to make a phone call, or leave a note on someone’s porch,” she said.
There are also a variety of resources that can be used to help neighbors in need.
Food pantry locations and access to other health and human services can be located through the United Way of Central Alabama’s 211 Call Center. This can be accessed by calling 2-1-1, texting 1-800-421-1266 or by chatting online at uwca.org/get-help/2-1-1-call-center/.
In addition, Community Food Bank of Central Alabama locations and services can be found at feedingal.org.