Food Banks Expand Across U.S. as Need Remains Above Pre-Pandemic Levels

The demand for stocked food banks has dropped from the COVID-19 pandemic peaks but remains far above pre-pandemic levels as many Americans still rely on food banks daily, the Associated Press reported.

Persistent food insecurity has pushed food banks across the country to expand their warehouses and outreach. Organizations have seen an increase in meals and food needed since the pandemic hit, as Feeding America's food banks provided a record amount of 6.6 billion meals between July of 2020 and June of 2021, up from 5.2 billion the previous year, the organization said.

In Atlanta on a recent weekday, a dozen cars were lined up well before opening at the Toco Hills Community Alliance, a food pantry northeast of Atlanta.

"There's just a large number of our neighbors, who by virtue of rising housing costs, rising health care costs and other pressures that they face, need help meeting all their basic needs. And we think that pressure is going to be here indefinitely even without the pandemic," said Kyle Waide, president of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

The Atlanta Community Food Bank built a larger facility near Atlanta's international airport with enough storage area equal to roughly 5 1/2 football fields, allowing the food bank to distribute tens of millions additional pounds of food.

Food banks reaching production capacity in Florida, North Carolina and other states are expanding their facilities as well, striving to provide the help Americans need.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

U.S. Food Banks
The demand for stocked food banks has dropped from the COVID-19 pandemic peaks but remains far above pre-pandemic levels. Above, volunteer group leader Bruce Beecham sorts food items in the Atlanta Food Bank's Hunger Action Center on September 22, 2021, in College Park, Georgia. John Bazemore/Associated Press

"So many people who had never had to ask for help found themselves in a position of needing it and not knowing where to go," said Ginette Bott, president and CEO of the Utah Food Bank. "It was like somebody flipped a switch."

Feeding South Florida is planning a large new plant to increase its produce supply. Two North Carolina food banks flush with cash from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott are set to build new structures that will double their capacity to store food. The Utah Food Bank is adding space in Salt Lake City and is also set to erect new food warehouses elsewhere in the state.

The Atlanta Community Food Bank moved into a 345,000-square-foot (32,000-square-meter) warehouse billed as the world's largest food bank. The move preceded COVID-19, but officials say it was a boon during the pandemic.

"We have never, ever, including during the pandemic, been able to touch everyone who needs (help)," said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, CEO of Feeding America, a national network of most food banks in the U.S. "But what we've come to understand better than we ever have before is what we're capable of and how do we think through the long game."

In Utah, one of two new warehouses will be near a Native American reservation that was a challenge to serve during the pandemic, said Bott. The second site will offer free dinners to kids, a population that suffered acutely from food insecurity when schools that provided meals went virtual.

Overall, the food bank will more than double its storage capacity after it incurred additional costs for extra space needed during the pandemic, Bott said. She estimated the new projects would cost roughly $40 million.

As part of its own expansion, the Food Bank of the Albemarle in northeast North Carolina is making sure it has enough generators in case a hurricane or tornado knocks out power, said Executive Director Liz Reasoner.

Meanwhile, Feeding South Florida is planning to build a 50,000- to 80,000-square-foot (4,600 to 7,400-square-meter) plant to freeze and package produce. The goal is to take in more crops during the growing season and then make them available year-round, said CEO Paco Velez.

"There's still a lot of produce that goes to waste," he said.

Helen Moody, a 60-year-old disabled U.S. Army veteran, has relied on the pantry for groceries since 2017. Moody said she and her husband live off $2,000 a month and do not qualify for federal food assistance.

"We're on a real tight budget," she said. "When we come over here, then we're able to have just a little bit for other things, just a little leeway because other than that you have no breathing space."