Pandemic worsens food insecurity woes statewide

By KATE COIL

With many still out of work or on furlough and no new federal increase to unemployment benefits, officials at food banks and pantries across the state of Tennessee are expecting a continued increase in the use of their services due to the pandemic.
Elaine Streno, director of operations for the Maryville-based Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee, said leadership at all of the state’s Second Harvest regional locations have reported an unprecedented amount of need for their communities.
“This year has been like nothing we have ever seen before,” Streno said. “I have done this for 27 years, and there was nothing that could have prepared us for the way this hit so quickly and the way they shut down the state. The five affiliates in Tennessee with Feeding America speak every week, and we are all seeing the same thing. The demand has increased 50% overnight, and we all adjusted quickly. It is affecting every area of the state fairly equally. While the demand has dropped a little right now, it’s still much higher than it was this time last year.”
Tracey Edwards, community relations manager for the Kingsport-based Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee, said her organization has seen an increase in food needs from residents in all walks of life in their region.
“We normally feed about 40,000 per month in our region, but we are up to more than 50,000,” Edwards said. “The number of people reaching out to us is exorbitantly higher and is increasing every month now that the boost in federal unemployment is gone. We always have senior citizens, people with children, and people with disabilities who need help. However, we are seeing more people because of the loss of jobs, the fact that there aren’t jobs that pay enough, and a lot of younger people who don’t have those six months of backup savings. We have seen people who work hard, have a job, and never thought they would ever have to ask for food.“
Edwards said that her organization has to rely on its warehouse staff and drivers to both pack and deliver food since safety precautions have prevented volunteers from coming into facilities since March.
The organization has adapted to the pandemic in other ways by holding drive-thru food pantries and organizing delivery to elderly patrons who are quarantining at home. Edwards said her organization is also working with the agencies and churches they partner with to do “pop-up pantries” at different sites across the eight counties in the state’s Northeast. She said they have also been offering more weekend events since many of those seeking food assistance are still gainfully employed during the week and unable to make it to weekday events.
Over the summer, deliveries were made to entire families rather than just students as part of their summer feeding program.
Streno said summer is often a time when there is a lot of need as families are no longer getting school meals provided for students. As a result of schools closing amid the pandemic, Streno said Second Harvest locations across the state adapted by beginning their summer feeding programs earlier than usual and coordinating with schools to ensure food was provided to students through drop-offs and drive-thru events.
Unlike previous years, several food programs were extended to feed entire families rather than only students.
Allette Vayda serves as director of operations for food programs with the Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS), which administers the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) for the state. The federal program provides reimbursements for nutritious meals and snacks to eligible children and adults who are enrolled for care at participating child care centers, day care homes, and adult day care centers. The department also administers a sister program, the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), that works with summer programs.
Vayda said the department has been working with schools and afterschool programs to continue to support children regardless of whether or not students are physically in school.
“The program operates in a lot of different ways, and has tried to adapt in different ways to best serve the needs of communities,” Vayda said. “Child care centers, day care homes, and a lot of those type facilities continue to operate throughout the pandemic. We have been working with the USDA, who funds the program, since March to figure out the best way to operate. We have received wavers for afterschool programs that allow parents to come to pick up those meals. We are trying to support our communities however the meals are needed. It may be allowing a waiver allowing a family to pick up meals for a whole week at one time or supporting a child care center that is continuing to operate during this time.”
During the summer, Vayda said the role of the SFSP was more important than ever.
“We have really been relying on that program since schools were out of session from March through September,” Vayda said. “We have been working to help provide meals directly to children within their communities. Our SFSP have actually been authorized to continue operating through Dec. 31, 2020. Similarly, to these programs, we have a lot of city governments, nonprofits, and churches who participate in the SFSP programs in their communities. Hopefully, we will not still be experiencing this level of impact next summer, but we are already asking folks to consider applying for next summer’s program since we are already seeing that there is going to be some continued impact on communities next year.”
Vayda said there are a variety of ways to participate in the program as a site, volunteer, or organization.
“We would really encourage anyone who has a daycare center, an adult care center, or who runs an afterschool program to reach out to us, get on our website, and let us help them and work with them on this program,” she said. “We accept applications from organizations all year round. We work to provide training for new organizations and help support them in that application process.”
As the pandemic continues, Edwards said programs being offered through the Tennessee Department of Emergency Management (TEMA) and the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) have been invaluable resources.
“They are providing us with fresh meat, fresh produce, and milk, and we are able to distribute perishable foods to people,” she said. “Of course, we always need donations of non-perishable, ‘shelf staple’ foods. We have to make sure that the donations we get now go more toward those non-perishable items like spaghetti sauce, pasta, canned tuna, canned chicken, and canned vegetables since we are getting that fresh stuff from the state and federal government. We are very thankful for that partnership with the government.”
Kim Doddridge, a spokesperson with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA), said the department has been working a variety of ways to promote access to fresh foods during the pandemic. One initiative has been promoting the use of the 160 active farmers’ markets listed on Pick Tennessee’s website and mobile app.
“We’ve been very active with farmers’ markets, and we have some farmers who have never participated in those before who are now,” Doddridge said. “We have also seen more on-farm sales where you go to the farm itself. In addition to answering the call of neighbors in need, farmers figured out pretty quickly how to work around where they could still provide fresh produce but do it safely. They have organized on-farm purchases to where people could preorder and not have to even get out of their car.”
Doddridge said the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA)has also helped coordinate the agriculture industry with food bank services. TDA also administers the federal The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) that helps supplement the diets of low-income Americans.
Edwards said one donation that strongly impacted her region came through a partnership with several groups involved in the dairy industry. Recently, TDA joined representatives from Weigel’s Convenience Stores, Mayfield Dairy, the Randy Davis Memorial Milk Fund, the Tennessee Dairy Promotion Committee, and Tennessee food banks affiliated with Feeding America for donation announcements.
“As many across the state face challenges resulting from this pandemic, we’re seeing community leaders in the food industry step up to address food insecurity,” Commissioner of Agriculture Charlie Hatcher said. “Distributing perishables isn’t easy but when producers, processors, retailers, and food banks work together, fresh, wholesome food gets to where it’s needed most.”
Weigel’s provided vouchers for 60,000 gallons of milk through Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee and Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee. The Tennessee Dairy Promotion Committee donated $20,000 for Second Harvest Food Banks to buy milk. The milk will be purchased from Mayfield Dairy in partnership with the Randy Davis Memorial Milk Drive Fund.
Food companies have also been effective in meeting hunger needs of Tennesseans in other areas of the state. Publix Super Market donated chicken, more than 17,600 pounds of produce and 17,800 pounds of milk to food banks in East Tennessee. Tyson Foods donated chicken to three Tennessee food banks and helped transport about 15,500 pounds of food to Helping Hand of Humboldt. Sysco donated eight pallets of food to Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee.
While there has been some decrease in need since students who have returned to school, Streno said the last part of the year is typically the busiest for food pantries.
“This is our busiest time from now until Christmas and always has been,” she said. “We will have enough food for the next three months, but it’s what will happen in January that mainly has us concerned.”
Despite this, Streno said those who have the means have been working to help those in need.
“I am very proud of our communities who are giving such unbelievable support and fundraising,” she said. “The giving has never been stronger across the state. We all receive national grants and we all received a grant from BlueCross and BlueShield. Our neighbors and our communities do not want to see their neighbors going hungry. We also receive a $1 million budget item from the state of Tennessee every year. Luckily, we were able to get that funding again this year. I would just like to say to the folks working with the state legislature to continue our funding because it will be needed. No one knows where we will be six months from now.”
For more information on local food banks and pantries, visit feedingamerica.org.