As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to sweep throughout the nation, food insecurity continues to be rampant throughout Alabama. The expected expiration at the end of the month of the CARES Act's weekly $600 federal unemployment payment could jeopardize even more people's food security.
High unemployment and food insecurity has caused many organizations, such as the Food Bank of East Alabama, to kick into high gear.
Martha Henk, director of the Food Bank of East Alabama, said that food insecurity in the area was a problem even before the pandemic.
“Lee County had a crisis even before the pandemic,” said Henk. “Seventeen percent of people in our county were considered food insecure. Now there is a whole new group of people who have never seen a food shortage before.”
When the stay-at-home order was first issued and Alabama shut down, many saw that more people than ever needed the resources provided by the food bank, but many of the food pantries, which typically distribute the goods to the public, were shut down.
“A lot of people really don’t understand the difference between a food bank and a food pantry,” said Henk. “The food bank collects food and supplies the pantries who distribute food to the people. The issue we had was that many of the food pantries were originally shut down, so we had to move around our way of operating and step up to take on the role of a food pantry.”
Henk also noted that another issue residents have been facing has been the steep rise in the cost of groceries.
"The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that grocery prices showed their biggest monthly increase in nearly 50 years," she said. "This jump in food prices is hitting at a time when many people are unemployed or have reduced working hours. For many middle-class people, that increase is mostly an inconvenience — but when people are living with very limited financial resources, this added burden leads to significant challenges to keep families fed.”
Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, the unemployment rate in Lee County was below 3 percent. The rate jumped to 12.4 percent during the Stay at Home lockdown, but fell to 8.7 percent in May once health order restrictions were eased.
In order to continue providing food for those in need, the food bank began to implement measures, such as drive-by food collections, in order to distribute food while minimizing contact. The food bank is also beginning to implement mobile food pantries to fill the gaps in their service.
Henk said she was glad to report that nearly two-thirds of the food pantries have reopened and several sizeable food donations have been made.
“Kroger in Atlanta, Golden State Foods, the Latter-day Saints, all donated a large amount of food,” said Henk.
Another group that has been actively working harder than usual since the start of the pandemic is the End Child Hunger in Alabama organization.
According to Charlotte Tuggle with Auburn University's College of Human Sciences, “ECHA is a network of key state leaders representing both public and private sectors working together to end child hunger in the state of Alabama. The County Food Guide Project is an extension of their mission under the current circumstances in which families may be especially pressed to find food.”
ECHA has launched the County Food Guide Project, an interactive map of Alabama counties on the ECHA website. Once residents click on their county, they will be directed to a page that lists nearby food resources. Volunteers and community partners maintain the map on a regular basis with up-to-date information, so those in need are encouraged to visit the site often. It can be found at http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/foodguides/.
As the future is still uncertain, Henk said that the Food Bank is having to look six to 12 months into the future. She also said that the food bank’s demand for both volunteers and donations is high but she also mentioned that the support of the community has been amazing.
“We have had people donate anywhere from $5 to their entire stimulus check,” said Henk. “People have responded extraordinarily well.”
If you are in need of food, you can visit leecountyfood.com to check out a list of resources and food pantries near you, or you can call 211, which will give you a list of food-providing agencies in the area.
To volunteer your time or to donate non-perishable food or money, go to www.foodbankofeastalabama.com.