Michael Bobb estimates 1,850 people were fed monthly through a food distribution program at the Middlecreek Area Community Center in Snyder County, where he serves as executive director.
That was before the coronavirus pandemic.
“In one (weekly) distribution, we did 1,900,” Bobb said, illustrating how demand for food aid quadrupled in under two months.
The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank supplements grocery inventory for 1,000 food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters across 27 counties. It delivered 13.3 million pounds of food in March and April, an increase of 3.7 million pounds over the same months in 2019, according to the program’s executive director, Joe Arthur.
Demand hasn’t outpaced supply, Arthur said.
Disruptions in the commercial food chain freed up larger quantities of produce, dairy and frozen goods available to the food bank. The greater challenge, Arthur said, is in securing non-perishables.
“There’s huge amounts of dairy. We’ve grown our milk and cheese programs with local sources,” Arthur said. “We’re feeling pretty good about food supplies for now and the coming weeks and months.”
Arthur is less certain about longterm supplies. As the economic recovery draws out, Arthur expects demand for food assistance to broaden.
“We think our crisis response is going to be months long, through the end of 2020 at a minimum,” Arthur said.
Public schools in the Valley continue to play a major role in feeding kids even as schools closed and instruction thinned and moved online. According to figures provided by 10 superintendents across the four-county area, the school districts served approximately 156,000 breakfasts and lunches since mid-March plus supplemental shelf-stable food items for weekends and evenings.
Pennsylvania received permission from the federal government to provide a one-time $370.50 payment to parents of each child who receives free or reduced school lunch to cover the cost of feeding kids while schools are closed.
A majority of 29 food programs in Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties experienced either an increase in demand for food assistance or at least remained steady, according to Joanne Troutman, president and CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way.
“Some agencies have said they need more food, but in general, donations are flowing and resources are being made available,” Troutman said. “We aren’t getting any indication that people are hungry and generally feel that people’s needs are being met. If anyone needs an emergency food delivery, they can call 211 to get that information.”
Calls to the free human services referral line jumped during the pandemic. According to data provided by Troutman, there have been a combined 93 calls to 211 in the three counties in March and April compared to 79 calls the previous eight months combined. Northumberland County saw the largest spike, from two calls in February to 38 in March.
“We are very concerned about long-term support when it comes to all basic needs. These programs and guidelines are going to expire at some point. The feeling is that things won’t be normal for the next 18 to 24 months. Not to mention the fact that we are terribly concerned about non-profits financially,” Troutman said.
Emily Mrusko, assistant director, Union-Snyder Community Action Agency, said the pandemic exaggerated food insecurity that existed inside households across the region.
“Many of these families are going to pantries and distributions for the first time ever, and that could be due to loss of employment,” Mrusko said. “Sometimes families are sacrificing food for keeping up with their utility bills and their rent”
The Union-Snyder agency administers four pantries. Mrusko said that, so far, state and federal funding sources for food purchases remain reliable.
The Eastern Union County Supplemental Food Program in Lewisburg serves about 325 individuals at its twice-monthly distributions, a “slight increase” in people seeking aid, according to the all-volunteer program’s director, Cindy Farmer.
The program provided a combined 12,000 pounds of food to 1,300 people since the third week of March, Farmer estimated. It hasn’t been easy. Farmer said she’s struggling to find foods they customarily use to fill bags. She buys from the Central PA Food Bank but said their choices aren’t as “abundant” as usual. Canned vegetables and cereal have been hardest to come by, she said.
“Just like the empty shelves we all see when going to the grocery store, I too am finding that my usual sources of food are either not available or their offerings are severely diminished. I have had to reach out to other sources to fill our bags which is costing us more money than usual to keep the program going,” Farmer said. “For this reason, the best way someone could help our program is with a financial donation.”
Except shelves for staples like meat and dairy aren’t exactly barren at Weis and Giant, according to company spokespersons. (As for toilet paper and paper towels, well, that can still be scarce.)
Reports of farmers composting produce, dumping milk and gassing poultry are real, attributed to mass closures of institutions like public schools and restrictions on dining at restaurants. That’s a different market segment that grocery stores which have been so busy that the industry saw a hiring surge and wage increases for employees.
Weis and Giant say there are no disruptions in its dairy supplies, though the latter said there are occasional supply limits for some varieties of eggs, butter and cream. Giant has two-per-day purchase limits on select beef, pork and poultry. There’s no blanket limit at Weis, though the current special on London Broil is limited.
“We’ve secured a significant amount of beef, pork, ground beef and poultry and should be good for a while,” said Dennis Curtin, public relations director, Weis. “We’re also monitoring the processing plant closures but note that some of the closed plants are scheduled to reopen in the near future once they complete cleaning, sanitizing and adjusting their protocols to ensure social distancing and COVID-19 prevention.”