What You Need To Know: Food Banks

Apr 6, 2020

Georgia Public Broadcasting’s new series What You Need To Know: Coronavirus provides succinct, fact-based information to help you get through the coronavirus pandemic with your health and sanity intact. 

Atlanta Community Food Bank CEO Kyle Waide spoke with Rickey Bevington, host of GPB's All Things Considered, about the impact COVID-19 has had on food banks and the resources available for those who need assistance.

If people tuning in right now don't have enough access to food or they know someone who may not have enough access to food, what can they do?

So we know that there are a lot of people who are now needing help. There's been a huge increase in the number of people who need help. And we know that because of the resources that we have available to help people find food, you can go to our website and at the home page at ACFB.org, you can click on a button that says Find Help. And there's an easy to use map that allows you to identify where you can go get some food assistance.

In addition, we have a new texting platform where you can text the words “find food” to the number 888-976-2232 and you'll receive a list of nearby food distribution sites. At the website, we've seen about a 300% increase over the last few weeks of people looking for food assistance. And similarly, the texting platform, which we just launched two weeks ago, has already had close to 4,000 people visit and use that resource. So we know there's a lot of people who need help right now and we're trying to do everything we can to connect them to that help.

Thousands of people are losing their jobs right now. And I assume that there's a correlation between the unemployment rate and people needing food assistance. Do you have enough food? You and other food banks have enough food to help everybody right now? 

Yeah, so we are working very aggressively to get as much food inventory as we can. Just last week, we brought in about 2.2 million pounds of food in the course of five days. That's about 50% more than what we would normally bring in in a normal week. And we're going to great lengths to get that food inventory. We're buying a lot more food than we would normally buy and spending as much money as we can to get that food here because people need it right now. We know the food supply across the country is tight right now, given the run on grocery stores that will get back to normal here in the next few weeks, we believe. And so in the meantime, we are doing everything we know how to do to keep our inventory levels strong in the months to come. We're confident that we'll be able to support the needs of the community over the long term.

Georgia is under shelter-in-place order through April 13. How does that impact food banks?

So food banks and the partners we work with to distribute food are considered essential services. We're part of the critical infrastructure that the governor designated in his shelter-in-place order. And we're part of the similar orders that other local jurisdictions have put in place. 

The way to think about it is for the people that we serve right now, we are their grocery store. And so we have to be open for them just as our local grocery stores are open for us. It obviously makes things more complicated for us to operate in this environment, but we're open. And the key thing that the way in which this order affects us is it just creates confusion for people knowing whether or not they can get food from a food pantry. But folks need to know that the food bank and our partners are open and ready for business and ready to give folks the food that they need. 

In fact, food banks are considered so vital to the nation's response to coronavirus that National Guard members are being deployed to food banks. What kind of work are they going to be doing?

So one of the challenges that we're working around right now at the food bank is that we have stopped utilizing volunteers inside our building just to prevent the risk of infection for our staff. We've got to make sure our staff stays healthy so we can sustain our response. We normally engage about 30,000 volunteers a year to support our work. So it's a big complication to the way that we operate. We have about 50 National Guard members who will be joining us Monday. We'll see them soon. And they're going to be helping us pack food boxes that are going to help us receive and pick a product and build orders and load people up. We'll have people volunteering out in the community from the National Guard folk, but it will be the same 50 people. And so we can kind of monitor their health and wellness much more effectively than we can a revolving door of volunteers. So we're excited about what they can do. They're going to really help us in our response effort.

Kyle, you're out on the ground right now talking to families, talking about to people who really need your help. Can you maybe share a story or an anecdote of somebody that you've spoken to recently that you've been able to help?

Yeah. So I think the people I've been talking to in particular are our partners who are getting food from us. What I hear from them is just that they are seeing double and triple the number of people that they normally see at their food pantries. Now, certainly, some of that is the same kind of panic buying that you see in the grocery stores is happening there as people worry about "Will there be enough food for me?" But we think that we're going to see elevated levels of need for a long time. And it's inspiring to see all of these partners continue to show up and volunteer and do what they do to get food to people in their communities. 

Our partner network is about 90% intact. Most of our partners are still operating, which is, you know, certainly we've helped to keep them going. But it's really a testament to their commitment, their courage, their caring that they keep showing up. 

I will also say that I spoke to a woman the other day who got food from one of the schools where we're distributing food to today. And she is just facing unbelievable obstacles right now. She has three kids. She's a single parent. Her kids are in high school or middle school, so they need a lot of nutrition. They normally get a lot of that nutrition at their school. And right now, they're not getting that. And so keeping her family stable, they really depend on the support that they're getting from the food bank and from other resources.

How can people help food banks? Right now, we're all stuck inside our homes. But is there anything that people can do and to feel empowered that they're doing their part in their community? 

Sure. So normally we would answer that question by saying, you know, of course, support us financially. But you can also volunteer and right now there are volunteer opportunities. And we do need people to help out in the community. They can't come to our building and help out, but they can do things out in the community through partners like Hands on Atlanta, United Way, the YMCA, the Westside Future Fund and others. But the best thing you can do right now is to support us financially. 

You know, the food bank is well prepared financially to absorb the impact of this crisis. We are spending a lot more money right now to do our work than we do normally, both to buy food and to kind of supplement our payroll needs, get more staff in the building. And for us to sustain that, however, for months to come, we're going to need the community to stay with us. We're going to need to sustain our fundraising efforts. So we need people to go to our website ACFB.org and help support our work. And we will ensure that that helps keep our communities strong and healthy as we work through this crisis. 

And finally, is there any relief on the way from the huge relief bill that Congress has passed? Will that be helping food banks going forward?

For sure. The stimulus bills that have been passed through Congress have included funding for food commodities that will be distributed through food banks around the country and our food bank will get a big chunk of that support. So relief is coming. It'll be great food. It'll be a lot of food and we'll be able to get it out. The challenge is that that food probably won't get here for another two to three months. And so between now and then, we're having to do everything we can to ensure we have enough inventory to meet all of the need.