In eight years as executive director of The Helping Hand of Greater Little Rock, Gayle Priddy has grown accustomed to the ebb and flow of hungry people gathering outside, some standing in line for an hour outside the building, waiting for groceries.
But what she’s seen in the year of COVID-19 is sobering even for this seasoned veteran of the food pantry business.
“We usually feed up to 100 families a day. That’s about all the food we can carry each day,” she said. “But I’ve never seen this many new families. A lot of them said they had never heard of us before but they’re out of a job, most of them are out looking for work and a few have had their hours reduced. That’s a big deal. So many new families and individuals are coming here for help.
“Yesterday we served 102 families. Eighty of those families had never been to our agency before. It’s scary.”
Across the country, people are reaching out for help from food banks and other organizations at a rate rarely seen in recent memory. A just-released poll by Two Good Yogurt and OnePoll found roughly 40 percent of Americans have experienced food insecurity for the first time during the pandemic. Approximately half of the 2,000 people interviewed said they struggled to afford groceries during this time and nearly 4 in 10 skipped meals themselves to ensure their children had enough to eat.
The situation has created an influx of newcomers to aid organizations such as The Helping Hand which is suffering a double whammy of higher traffic and reduced contributions. Priddy said fears over job security and other disruptions of daily life have slowed both cash and food donations to the 50-year-old food pantry.
“It’s been a roller coaster, up and down,” Priddy said. “Right now, we’re trying to collect food to give out Thanksgiving boxes. Last year, we gave 300 Thanksgiving dinner boxes with everything they needed for Thanksgiving. It’s slow coming in this year, the donations.
“We usually get a big donation from Mount St. Mary Academy at Thanksgiving time. They have their annual Robin Hood Days canned food drive and usually we go with a pickup truck and trailer and it’s probably 40,000 cans. This year so many of the kids are not going to school so they haven’t collected as many canned goods.”
Prior to COVID-19, America seemed to be making progress in combating food insecurity.
According to Feeding America statistics, 35 million Americans lived with food insecurity pre-coronavirus, the lowest number in two decades. But nearly nine months after COVID-19 landed in the U.S., Northwestern University researchers estimate food insecurity rates have more than doubled and now impact nearly one in four U.S. households.
Furthermore, things are not likely to turn around quickly. Feeding America predicts the number of food-insecure individuals to balloon to more than 50 million, if unemployment and poverty rates remain on their current trend lines. Of the hungry, 17 million are children.
The Two Good Yogurt/OnePoll survey revealed another surprising statistic: About 63 percent of those experiencing food insecurity never thought of themselves as at risk of going hungry, prior to the pandemic. Cuts in job benefits, the long-gone stimulus check and other curtailed government programs, affecting almost 60 percent of respondents, quickly shattered that illusion.
It’s a story Ben Goodwin, executive director of Our House shelter in Little Rock, hears daily.
“One of the things we did to respond to the pandemic is to set up a phone-based service which has grown like a snowball over the months,” he said. “We’re handling over 500 calls a week now on that hotline. Many of them have said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever had to call for help after being in my apartment five or 10 years.’ They’re not our ‘typical’ client profile.”
Goodwin said Our House has not had difficulty getting food supplies and serving meals, given the organization does not function as a food pantry and has a robust network of churches and other groups which regularly prepare and serve meals. But he does fear losing the public’s attention to the spike in other kinds of requests.
“The pandemic has impacted us as a community in all kinds of ways and for a lot of folks, economically, they’re doing okay. But, there’s also many people in the community that are not doing okay and still need help,” he said. “The stories I’m getting, 81 percent of those 500 weekly hotline calls are people who need some housing assistance. They’re in their apartment, they’re not homeless yet but they are going to be soon, and they need some help.
“I know we all have some kind of COVID fatigue, but that doesn’t mean that COVID has moved on from impacting people economically.”
To make a much-needed donation to either of these groups, visit:
The Helping Hand: lrhelpinghand.com
Our House: ourhouseshelter.org