Demand on the state’s food banks has increased 65 percent due to the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak, according to Feeding PA, the state’s network of food charities.
Food bank operators and anti-hunger advocates say they don’t expect the need to diminish any time soon, even as the state begins to relax social-distancing restrictions.
That’s no surprise at time when the state is dealing with record unemployment – through Wednesday, 1.7 million Pennsylvanians had filed for jobless benefits – and people are waiting hours for food distributions.
In Shamokin Dam last week, hundreds of people lined up in vehicles for hours for a Dairy Farmers of America event that offered two gallons of milk per person. A similar event is scheduled for Saturday at Delgrosso’s Amusement Park in Blair County, sponsored by the DFA and the Blair County Farm Bureau.
First Lady Frances Wolf joined the Secretary of Agriculture Russ Redding and Secretary of Human Service Teresa Miller to urge people to take advantage of safety net programs if they need the help.
“Many residents have faced growing and serious challenges in one of their most basic needs, that is, how to feed themselves and their families,” the state’s First Lady said. “It is crucial, it is critical that we encourage our fellow Pennsylvania that they use these benefits,” she said “We must refrain from shaming them” for using government and charitable programs intended to help people who are struggling, she said.
The number of people served by the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank jumped 30% and the amount of food distributed by the food bank increased at least 40%, executive director Joe Arthur said.
“The amount of need is pretty startling,” he said. The increased demand seen by the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank actually appears to be less than the spikes experienced by their counterparts. Statewide, food banks have seen an 65 percent increase in demand, with the most significant increases in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, said Corinne Foster, executive coordinator for Feeding PA.
In a normal month, the food bank serves about 135,000 people across 27 counties in Pennsylvania. Now, that’s closer to 175,000 people, Arthur said.
The strain on the Central Pennsylvania food bank hasn't been as intense as the increased demand seen in other parts of the state that have been hit harder by the coronavirus outbreak.
"Demand has varied in different regions of the state," said Shannon Powers, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture.
But, he added that food bank officials aren’t really sure how many people they’re helping because social-distancing leaves little opportunity to compile complete data on people being given food, especially when the food’s being handed out to people in lines of vehicles.
Food chain upheaval
Efforts to make sure everyone has access to food hasn’t been made any easier by the upheaval in the food supply chain, which has been battered on dual fronts.
First, when restaurants and schools closed, farmers and food processors had to quickly figure out how to re-adjust. On top of that, coronavirus outbreaks closed some meat processing plants and reduced production in others where workers were sickened.
State Sen. Elder Vogel of Beaver County emphasized that there is no shortage of dairy, beef or pork in Pennsylvania.
The problem is that the food can't get from the farm to the consumer as quickly and efficiently as it normally does, he said.
When all of the schools and universities and restaurants shut down unexpectedly, there was no lead time to change over from half-pints to gallons, coming into ice cream season, a lot of milk normally would go for ice cream, but a lot of stands aren't open yet.
Big institutions are closed, he said. Universities use a lot of milk, butter and cheese; "it was a very abrupt end and you're sitting on thousands of gallons of milk. Farmers have to milk their cows twice day, and they can't stop milking. The owner of a cheese plant in Mercer County ran out of cooler space, so two dairies that were taking it there had to start dumping milk, Vogel explained.
"You don't realize now much milk and butter got used in a day in restaurants and schools that aren't being used."
"When you lose a market that fast when you're not expecting it," there is a transition into getting it ready for grocery stores. More people are staying at home cooking and families are having three meals a day together under the stay-home order, and stores were quickly selling out of the products. The prices were driven up because of "supply and demand," he said.
The closing of the schools and restaurants wasn’t the only problem though.
Meat processing plants in Pennsylvania and across the country began to struggle to keep their doors open as more and more workers became ill with coronavirus. Four meat processing plants in Pennsylvania, employing a combined total of about 3,000 workers, according to he United Food and Commercial Workers -- in Hazleton, Luzerne County; in Mifflintown, Juniata County; and plants in Souderton and King of Prussia, both in Montgomery County --temporarily shut down.
All four have since reopened. But federal data shows the problem was far more widespread than at just those four plants. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention workers in 22 Pennsylvania meat processing plants tested positive for coronavirus in April.
That’s led some grocery chains to begin limiting the amount of meat products shoppers can buy. Shoppers at Giant Eagle are limit to two packs of ground beef, the company has announced.
Not all stores have felt the need to begin rationing meat products though.
At the Golden Dawn supermarket in Farrell, Mercer County, meat was piled high on its refrigerated shelves Wednesday with more on hand in storage.
The store reacted early to reports of beef shortages, said meat department manager Larry Lavan.
"We've been doing this for a long time,'' he said. "We have four suppliers and we ordered a lot from all of them."
Thus far, the Central PA Food Bank has been able to keep up with demand because of increased donations, Arthur said. Most of the state’s largest food processors and grocery chains donate to the food bank, he said. But Arthur added that it’s not clear how close the light at the end of the tunnel might be.
“We think we’re fairly early in the crisis,” he said. “Through 2020 and beyond we’re going to be operating at a really high level.”
The state has begun seeking innovative ways to try to connect people to food despite the increased demand and the challenge in locating adequate supply, said Christine Heyser, Mass Care Coordinator/Disability Integration Specialist for the state Department of Human Services.
“We were banging our heads against the wall” in frustration over how to locate the food needed, Heyser said.
In April. the state Emergency Management Agency contracted with Operation BBQ -- a relief organization created in the aftermath of the tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo., in 2011 – to use idled restaurant workers to begin producing meals for distribution through the state’s Salvation Army location, Heyser said.
Operation BBQ has been providing 180,000 meals a week. By the time the $18.3 million agreement expires, the effort will have produced 3.9 million meals, she said.
The increased pressure on food banks comes as the charitable food network serves as a backstop to help people get through the month after they’ve spent their food stamp payments, said Human Service Secretary Teresa Miller said.
Just over 1.75 million people in Pennsylvania get food stamp benefits.
In March, that only increased about 1 percent – just under 17,000 people were added to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program roll.
Lisa Watson, who is the deputy secretary for the Office of Income Maintenance. Her office administers SNAP, among other programs, said state officials had expected to see a bigger increase in the number of applications for food stamps.
State officials have yet to figure out why there hasn’t been a bigger bump in applications, but they don’t believe there are any particular groups of people who should be applying for food stamps who aren’t, she said.
One likely explanation is that many people have been signing up for unemployment benefits and with the $600 a week added unemployment benefit provided by the federal stimulus package, haven’t sought food stamps, as well, she said.
Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, said that the full scope of the need for food stamps probably just hasn’t become obvious yet.
“We suspect that this is only the tip of the iceberg -- for one thing, many people will exhaust other resources before applying,” he said.
The state has already moved to provide additional benefits to people who are receiving food stamps, Watson said.
Depending on their income levels, not every food stamp recipient normally gets the maximum benefit. The Department of Human Services has gotten approval to provide the full maximum monthly benefit to all food stamp recipients throughout the state’s pandemic disaster declaration – which has amounted to an average benefit bump of $323 a month, Watson said.
The Department of Human Services also announced on Thursday that it has gotten approval to provide a one time $370.50 payment to all parents of children who have been receiving free or reduced-price lunch at school, to cover the cost of feeding the kids while schools are closed.
The state has also applied for permission from the USDA to allow people to use food stamps to buy groceries online and get them delivered, Watson said.
That benefit – which was the focus of reporting by CNHI’s Pennsylvania newspapers in early April – is important to elderly people and the disabled who may not easily be able to get to the grocery store.
Pennsylvania submitted its waiver to begin allowing online ordering with food stamps on April 30.
The USDA has already given the OK for 11 states to allow people to use food stamps for online grocery ordering – Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia.