(Associated Press) The deadly pandemic that tore through the nation’s heartland struck just as Aaron Crawford was in a moment of crisis. He was looking for work, his wife needed surgery, then the virus began eating away at her work hours and her paycheck.
The Crawfords had no savings, mounting bills and a growing dread: What if they ran out of food? The couple had two boys, 5 and 10, and boxes of macaroni and cheese from the dollar store could go only so far.
A 37-year-old Navy vet, Crawford saw himself as self-reliant. Asking for food made him uncomfortable. “I felt like I was a failure,” he says. “It’s this whole stigma … this mindset that you’re this guy who can’t provide for his family, that you’re a deadbeat.”
Hunger is a harsh reality in the richest country in the world. Even during times of prosperity, schools hand out millions of hot meals a day to children, and desperate elderly Americans are sometimes forced to choose between medicine and food.
Now, in the pandemic of 2020, with illness, job loss and business closures, millions more Americans are worried about empty refrigerators and barren cupboards. Food banks are doling out meals at a rapid pace and an Associated Press data analysis found a sharp rise in the amount of food distributed compared with last year. Meanwhile, some folks are skipping meals so their children can eat and others are depending on cheap food that lacks nutrition.
Those fighting hunger say they’ve never seen anything like this in America, even during the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
The first place many Americans are finding relief is a neighborhood food pantry, most connected to vast networks of nonprofits. Tons of food move each day from grocery store discards and government handouts to warehouse distribution centers, and then to the neighborhood charity.
The Crawfords turned to the Family Resource Centers and Food Shelf, part of 360 Communities, a nonprofit 15 minutes from their apartment in Apple Valley, Minnesota. When needed, they receive monthly boxes of fresh produce, dairy, deli, meat and other basics — enough food to fill two grocery carts. If that runs out, they can get an emergency package to tide them over for the rest of the month.
Crawford’s wife, Sheyla, had insisted they seek help; her hours had been cut at the day care center where she worked. At first, Crawford was embarrassed to go the food shelf; he worried he’d bump into someone he knew. He now sees it differently.
“It didn’t make me a bad man or a terrible husband or father,” he says. “On the contrary, I was actually doing something to make sure that my wife and kids had … food to eat.”
The history books are filled with iconic images of America’s struggles against hunger. Among the most memorable are the Depression-era photos of men standing in breadlines, huddled in long coats and fedoras, their eyes large with fear. An overhead sign reads: “Free Soup. Coffee and a Doughnut for the Unemployed.”
This year’s portrait of hunger has a distinctively bird’s eye view: Enormous traffic jams captured from drone-carrying cameras. Cars inching along, each driver waiting hours for a box or bag of food. From Anaheim, California to San Antonio, Texas to Toledo, Ohio and Orlando, Florida and points in-between, thousands of vehicles carrying hungry people queued up for miles across the horizon. In New York, and other large cities, people stand, waiting for blocks on end.
The newly hungry have similar stories: Their industry collapsed, they lost a job, their hours were cut, an opportunity fell through because of illness.
Handwritten “closed” signs appeared on the windows of stores and restaurants soon after the pandemic arrived. Paychecks shrank or disappeared altogether as unemployment skyrocketed to 14.7 percent, a rate not seen in almost a century.
Food banks felt the pressure almost immediately.
Feeding America, the nation’s largest anti-hunger organization, scrambled to keep up as states locked down and schools — many providing free breakfasts and lunches — closed. In late March, 20 percent of the organization’s 200 food banks were in danger of running out of food.
The problem with supply subsided, but demand has not. Feeding America has never handed out so much food so fast — 4.2 billion meals from March through October. The organization has seen a 60 percent average increase in food bank users during the pandemic: about 4 in 10 are first-timers.