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How COVID-19 Is Impacting Food Insecurity

The ways food programs are adapting and how you can help

By Randi Mazzella

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began and we have been sheltering in place, many people are spending a lot of time worrying about getting groceries and preparing meals for their families. However, for many individuals across the country, the worries exist like never before as many are now facing food insecurity for the first time.

man eating
Credit: Adobe

According to the Feeding America website, “In 2018, 14.3 million American households were food insecure with limited or uncertain access to enough food.” Now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem is even worse, particularly for older Americans.

Hollie Baker-Lutz, director of equitable access at Feeding America, says, "The economic impact of COVID-19 has many people relying on food banks for the first time. We estimate that forty percent of people currently receiving food from food banks are new to the system."

Why COVID-19 is Causing Food Insecurity

Feeding America’s 3rd Annual State of Senior Hunger in America research study released in 2019 stated, “As of 2017, 5.5 million seniors age 60 and older in the U.S. experience food insecurity.”

Although there are no newer statistics, these numbers have likely gone up. Due to the pandemic, unemployment has skyrocketed. Many older adults have lost their jobs or experienced a financial setback resulting in a loss of income and inability to buy groceries.

Because the older population is vulnerable to serious complications from the COVID-19 virus, they may be fearful of going to the market due to the risks (although many supermarkets are offering senior-shopping hours to limit exposure to at-risk customers) or to a local food bank.

While the demand for food is up at food banks, there has been a decline in food donations. Many people who normally donate can no longer afford to do so or are reluctant to leave their homes to drop off items at the food bank.

They may have relied on senior centers for group meals which are now unavailable due to social distancing. Or their family or neighbors may have brought them groceries, but now those people are unable to assist because they are staying home, too, or returning to work.

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Food delivery services that many people have been using, such as Instacart, may not be an option for older adults. The fees can be cost-prohibitive and the sites difficult to navigate, especially for those with limited computer skills or Internet access.

An Increased Need for Assistance and Fewer People to Volunteer

Meals on Wheels America, which delivers healthy meals in almost every community in the country, has seen an enormous increase in demand for its services.

Jenny Young, vice president of communication at Meals on Wheels America, says, “We have twenty-two percent more seniors to serve than pre-COVID-19 and are delivering fifty-six percent more meals per week. We have had to scale up rapidly to accommodate the need and are facing a lot of challenges.”

While the demand for food is up at food banks, there has been a decline in food donations. Many people who normally donate can no longer afford to do so or are reluctant to leave their homes to drop off items at the food bank.

With many restaurants closed or doing limited take-out service, there is excess food available, but much of it is going to waste because there is no way to transport the food to those in need or no place to store food properly.

In addition to this disruption of the supply chain, there is also a shortage of volunteers to staff food bank and meal-service programs.

Baker-Lutz explains, “Many of the volunteers at food banks (and meal-service programs) that pack and distribute groceries are seniors themselves. Due to the health risks, they are staying home.”

Protecting volunteers while dealing with the increase in demand has been a challenge.

Marianne Krantz, director of volunteers for Meals on Wheels and Home Support Services in Summit, N.J.,  explains: “Two weeks before the state of New Jersey went on lockdown, we knew things were going to get rough. The phone started ringing off the hook as older people in the community were afraid to leave home and were requesting Meals on Wheels. We encouraged our older volunteers who had even minor medical conditions to stay home and many did. There were a few who didn’t want to, but we kind of insisted.”

Food Delivery Programs Adapt to the New Normal

Food assistance programs have had to adapt quickly.

Feeding America established the COVID-19 Response Fund to help 200 member food banks across the country. The $2.65 million fund is helping support communities impacted by the pandemic and secure resources.

“We have had to adapt our practices. Instead of having clients come into the food bank, many are offering drive-through to limit contact,” says Baker-Lutz. “We are outfitting our volunteers in personal protective equipment and enforcing social distancing."

Meals on Wheels has also altered its model. Since many of its volunteers were 55 and over, the programs have started to rely on hired drivers and younger volunteers, like college students, to help out. Krantz has been fortunate that her low-risk volunteers are willing to do double and triple shifts when the program is short on help.

Delivery services for Meals on Wheels are now contact-free, a necessary change for everyone’s safety. But it's one that comes at a cost.

Young says, “One of the big parts of our program is the socialization it offers. Volunteers would enter the home, initiate conversations with clients and check for hazards. Now, there is no interaction beyond knocking on the door."

Most programs used to offer daily delivery, but Young says many have had to change to once a week or every two weeks, offering shelf-stable or frozen meals that can last longer.

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As a Meals on Wheels delivery volunteer myself, I have experienced a certain frustration since the new safety rules were implemented. It’s upsetting not be able to help my clients in the way that I normally would. I try to be cheerful, but it is not the same with my mask on since they cannot see me smiling and I have to stand so far away.

One of my clients has a walker and it is so hard for her to get the food from her porch where I've been instructed to leave it. I feel terrible watching her struggle to lift the bags. All I want is to help her by bringing the meals inside. She is lonely and I am one of her only visitors, but I cannot stay to chat because it is too risky right now.

Finding Creative Solutions

Twin Cities Mobile Market (now a part The Food Group) which regularly served older adults in food deserts in Minneapolis and St. Paul through its “store on wheels” has changed its model because of COVID-19 concerns.

Director Leah Porter says, “This population is already vulnerable and cut off from resources, so we had to get creative to meet their needs. We now offer free no-contact delivery to our senior clients. We try to include some fresh produce in the boxes, along with shelf-stable items such as canned soup, vegetable and protein. It doesn’t allow them to choose the groceries they want, but this model is safer for clients and volunteers."

Across the country, creative new programs are being formed to combat senior food insecurity.

On April 24, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the launch of the Restaurants Deliver: Home Meals for Seniors program. Created through a partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the statewide program has local eateries preparing meals for older adults in need. In addition to helping feed the hungry older population, the program allows lets restaurants keep their staff employed.

"Food insecurity is an issue for many people. You cannot assume who is in need and who is not, especially now."

In Michigan, the Department of Health and Human Services launched a virtual food drive to help build up food supplies, provide healthy meals and limit the need for older adults to go to the grocery store. A $28 donation pays for an entire box containing 33 food items (enough to make 22 nutritious meals) for a food-insecure older adult.

For older adults in the New York City area whose food insecurity stems from not being able to leave their home, three young men and women in their 20s started Invisible Hands. Their organization of over 10,000 volunteers is delivering groceries, prescriptions and other necessities to those at-risk members of the greater New York City community.

How You Can Help

You can help older Americans with food insecurity in a variety of ways.

Financially: Donations to Feeding America or the Meals on Wheels COVID-19 Response national fund get distributed to communities where help is needed the most. Or, if you prefer, you can donate to local programs operated in your town.

Food and Supplies: When you can buy groceries, pick up a few extra items to donate to food banks or food drives in your area. Many are offering curbside pickup of items.

Time:  Many programs are looking for volunteers to pack meals and make deliveries, so check in and see what their needs are regarding staff.

Stay out of the grocery store during senior-shopping hours. It’s essential to minimize contact for older adults and immune-compromised people, so don’t shop during these hours.

Check in on older friends, family and neighbors. Social distancing may cause older adults to become isolated and reluctant to seek help. Reach out to see how they are doing. Offer to go to the store for them or to help find resources if they are in need.

Baker-Lutz says, “Food insecurity is an issue for many people. You cannot assume who is in need and who is not, especially now. There is still a stigma to needing assistance and what people need is compassion. Anyone can be in this situation.”

Even once the stay-at-home pandemic measures are lifted in states, many older adults will still face food insecurity. Young says, "This problem isn't going anywhere. Until there is a vaccine, many seniors will remain homebound and in need of help."

Photograph of Randi Mazzella
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer specializing in a wide range of topics from parenting to pop culture to life after 50. She is a mother of three and lives in New Jersey with her husband and teenage son.  Read more of her work on randimazzella.com. Read More
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