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How Central PA Food Pantries Made a Big Impact During COVID-19

By: Tyler Dancisin 8/4/21

"Giving is better than receiving.” A saying that many families have been preaching for ages, but is it really true? In a 2020 study at Texas A&M University, researchers found great signs of increased health, lowered depression, and a reduction of stress hormones to those who donate to charity.

Over the past year, donating and giving back to others has been more prevalent than ever. Jobs, paychecks and loved ones were lost over the period in which COVID-19 has spread throughout the world. Food, something that everyone can agree that is a human right. Despite this common agreement however, hunger in the world is still a large issue. According to Action Against Hunger, 690 million people in the world suffer from hunger. To take that number into perspective, that would be 57 times the population of Pennsylvania, 2 times the population of the United States, and 8.9% of the earth’s population.

Hunger, however, is a solvable issue in the world. Food Banks are a source of solving hunger issues across the world with the goal of distributing plenty of supplies, money and time to local communities to ensure those in need do not go hungry. Just in the United States, there are tens of thousands of banks and pantries that have supplies for American families who may need a little assistance.

In 2017, 41 million Americans struggled with hunger and finding their next meal. Despite this large number, Americans still ended up throwing away over $150 bllion worth of food, which is nearly 40% of the country’s supply in 2018. “We have to address the underlying issue, which is poverty” said York County Food Bank, CEO Jennifer Brillhart. Coincidently, the poverty rate in the United States is 13.7% and 10.5% of American households face a hunger insecurity.

When COVID-19 started to seriously impact day-to-day life, it resulted in millions facing unemployment. 22 million jobs were lost and that meant 22 million less paychecks for families and less stable income for food. Food Banks saw a great increase in the number of individuals coming to distribution centers for meals and other essential items as well.

Nearly every Food Bank that serves the Central PA area saw almost double the number of families coming to each distribution. “It was a bit of a challenge because the logistics the supply chain was kind of wonky” said Bob Weed, CEO of Project Share in Carlisle. Project Share struggled to keep up with the demand in the early phases of COVID-19, but as the months went on, the supply came back into play. “Fortunately, we were able to take advantage of some of the programs that were passed or put in place under the Trump administration. The one in particular was the Farmers to Families Act that came out of the first Cares Act” Weed said. The Farmers to Families Act was an initiative where the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) would buy directly from local farms and put together 25-pound produce boxes that would be given to local Food Banks, pantries and other entities as well.

Food Banks also rely heavily on grocery stores in the area to donate leftover food, but as COVID-19 started, going to a grocery store was difficult as supplies were all depleted. “It was tricky at the beginning of the pandemic, especially when people were at the grocery store, and they were hoarding everything” Jennifer Sands, Communications Director of the Central PA Food Bank said. “The grocery stores that donate a lot to us, they didn't have as much to give to us” she continued. However, as time went on throughout COVID-19, the supply chain was restored and their partners at Wegmans, Carnes, Walmart and Giant all were willing to work with the food banks.

In Central PA, 4%-14% of households have an issue with a food insecurity, which is just below the national average of 16%. Food Banks in the surrounding areas such as Project Share, The Central PA Food Bank and the York County Food Bank help feed a few thousand families each month. The demand for food grew at food banks, which meant the supply would need to be there as well. Central PA Food Bank went from serving 120,000 individuals a month to around 200,000 a month. These families come anywhere from the Maryland to the New York border to receive meals. Project Share in Carlisle saw an 18% increase in demand during the year 2020 and went from serving an average of 800 families a month to their peak at 1800 families a month. York County Food Bank also saw a significant increase in their distribution center with, a 40% overall increase in their general services during the year 2020.

The tremendous increase in numbers during COVID-19 were seen across the Central PA area, but as vaccines begin to roll out there has been a noticeable decrease in the number of families coming each week. There were lots of spikes and decreases in the numbers throughout the time during COVID-19, especially when stimulus checks would be rolled out. The more time after a stimulus check payment was distributed, the more families that would come to food banks, but as the checks were released, there would be a decrease. The large spike overall is decreasing steadily, but is still expected to be well above average for the next 2 to 3 year time period. The main reason for the anticipated need for Food Banks over the next years is because of the job market slowly coming back. The loss of jobs and money coming into each household was a huge strike on millions of American families, but as the country slowly reopens for business, the jobs come back with it.

Families from across Central PA come from far and wide to benefit from all the services that these food banks offer. “We're serving the entire county of York and people do drive a good distance to come to our establishment. But we also have a mobile food pantry, which is a food pantry on wheels” Jennifer Brillhart said. This old bus that was transformed into a mobile pantry and travels around York County to houses and residences that do not have the opportunity to go to the Food Bank itself. “We always try to encourage people they don't need to drive far, especially with you know, trying to keep costs down to a minimum. We don't want people spending a lot of money on their gas” Brillhart continued. Along with the Mobile Food Bank, York County Food Bank encourages those to go to local Food Banks in the York County area to limit travels expenses.

How to help

Donating is one of the simplest ways to give back to local food banks. Not only do food banks take canned food items, most distribution centers give out basic home items such as toilet paper and even school supplies for children like backpacks and other school supplies.

What happens when you actually go to donate something to a food bank? Well, you have lots of options to donate, as food banks take any canned goods, meat, home supplies or money. Once you donate your item, it is checked into a large warehouse in which the food bank volunteers then take and assemble a large food box which is then packed full of essential items. Depending upon the food bank, some do daily, weekly or monthly distribution processes. Cars will line up ready to receive their food box, tell a volunteer how many are in your family and then their vehicle is packed full of food and other supplies they need. Times for distribution process are spread throughout the day to accommodate anyone working during a certain during the day as well just so everyone has a fair chance at getting their share.

Becoming a volunteer is one of the largest impacts that you can make. COVID-19 changed operations for every business in the world, but Food Banks were still considered essential. Volunteers are a big reason that these organizations can serve so many families each month, but most volunteers did not want to help due to concerns of their own safety and health. But as time rolled on, volunteering at each food bank was bigger than it ever was before. “We can’t do the work that we do without them either. Last year alone, our volunteers donated about 91,000 hours of their time.” Jennifer Sands from Central PA Food Bank said. Overall, just at the Central PA Food Bank, there were over 9,000 different volunteers that came out during the year of 2020 to help out at distributions, in the warehouse and to just give back to the local community. There were over 400,000 Crisis Response Boxes packed as well since March 2020.

The Future of Food Pantries

The future of Food Banks is bright and the importance of them never seemed more relevant than over the last year. Families depend on their services and and it is all made possible by the countless volunteers. The pandemic provided some of the most difficult and unique times for everyone. The demand for Food Banks were overwhelming large over the last 15 months and they are predicting for more of that in the future. Without the help of volunteers and the local grocery stores donating their time and products, there wouldn’t of been enough for the Central PA community.

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