Not long ago, a mother and her two children stopped by the Verona Community Food Pantry to pick up food for the family. While she never lost her job at a travel and food plaza, her husband was laid off for about four months. With just one income, the family was in a financial bind. After paying their bills, they did not have enough money left over for other essentials, like food. She and her husband applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — also known as food stamps — but they were just above the limit for their household size and did not qualify for any benefits.
Unfortunately, stories like this one are not unique. Feeding America estimates up to 275,000 more Virginians might experience food insecurity because of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing Virginia’s food insecurity rate from 9.9% to 13.1%. The ability of this family — and countless others — to weather this crisis is riding on whether our government quickly acts.
Verona Community Food Pantry is one of the 1,500 partner agencies associated with the seven member food banks that make up the Federation of Virginia Food Banks. Since early spring, our network of food banks, pantries, soup kitchens and shelters has been at the front lines of providing food assistance to help people weather unimaginable conditions: the largest U.S. public health crisis in a century, staggering unemployment numbers and a 50-year high for grocery prices. As we continue serving families across the commonwealth, we are preparing for a steep decline in food, which will make it harder to ensure Virginians have access to the food they need to thrive.
Nationally, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food purchases of U.S.-grown food make up around 30% of all food distributed by the vast network of food banks, partner pantries and meal programs. In just a few short weeks, USDA food is expected to decline by 50%. At the same time, the Virginia’s network is experiencing a sustained 25% increase in demand for food, as the pandemic and economic downturn continue with no end in sight.
Less food plus more need: This is an equation that translates to people being turned away from food banks without the help they need. This devastating outcome can be avoided if the federal government revisits the cut to the amount of necessary and nutritious food we receive.
Every year, the USDA helps move billions of pounds of healthy food from farmers to food banks to families — helping to ensure produce, dairy and other pantry staples don’t go to waste, and instead fuel students for learning and help cash-strapped seniors keep their plates full. However, under current policy, the USDA will scale back food support for food banks, spelling disaster for the ability of Virginia’s food banks to help our neighbors facing dire circumstances.
Across Virginia, our food banks are purchasing at least twice as much food as they did at this time in 2019. This is not sustainable. Generally, there are few easy answers for decision-makers as they try to get us through this public health and economic emergency — but this issue is unique in that the answer is right in front of us. During a time of historic need, when groceries are more expensive, the USDA has a critical opportunity to ensure food banks maintain a steady and critical supply of food needed to support the hundreds of thousands of people we serve.
Eddie Oliver is the executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, the commonwealth’s largest charitable response to hunger, representing Virginia’s seven food banks. He previously served as state director for No Kid Hungry Virginia. Contact him at: email@example.com