Shelter-in-place orders and shutdowns due to the coronavirus have contributed to a 1,500% increase in unemployment claims. Nearly 3.3 million Americans applied for benefits last week.
That staggering uptick of people in need is overwhelming for organizations like the North Texas Food Bank. CEO Trisha Cunningham talked to us about the challenges the food bank is facing and how it's adapting.
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On how the food bank is coping:
We have had to adapt because this is very different from any other kind of disaster. You know, the food bank has always been on the front lines of any kind of crisis, whether it's sheltering Hurricane Harvey victims or helping out with the tornadoes recently, or even during the shutdown. But this one is different, and we've had to totally change our distribution model.
Typically we have over 200 partner agencies out in the community that we could give pallets of food to, and then they're able to be able to serve their clients. But because we have had to move to more of a low- to no-touch model of distribution, instead of clients being able to go into food pantries that tend to put them in close quarters, we're having to box up food. That way they can use drive-through models at their pantries to be able to access the food. We're doing the same thing on our mobile distributions as well.
So, this has required more volunteers at a time when fewer volunteers want to come and help us [because of shelter-in-place guidance]. We actually even had to shift our volunteer model to try to make sure that we could have a sustained volunteer staff.
On how they're dealing with the increase in demand:
It's all hands on deck right now, and we are relying on our partner agency network to be that face in the community.
A lot of people who may have never experienced hunger before are having to look up where their nearest food pantry is. People can find that on our website.
The pantries are experiencing a huge increase in demand. We're hearing a 40% to 50% increase.
On how staff is coping:
We are working as hard as we can, as fast as we can, to try to make sure we can meet the skyrocketing needs. No lie; the staff is tired, they’re exahausted. But you know, they have a passion for our mission, and to be able to see the community support we’ve gotten has certainly given them inspiration as well.
On what's mission-critical right now:
I think there's a few things.
• Number one, the new economic stimulus bill that's coming out right now will be helpful, but there are a few things that did not come through. I think a lot of our clients who are on SNAP benefits could use a little extra help, because they have a lot more needs that are happening.
• We need additional flexibility as far as being able to distribute some of the government food. Restrictions have been reduced, and that requires a [higher] level of intake. We don't want our employees to be in harm's way — whenever they're having to get some of those forms out, for instance. And then I think you're going to see a spike of the number of people who need additional assistance with applications for unemployment.
• We're going to need food from FEMA.
• We may need additional support from a manpower standpoint, and so we're going to be calling on our legislators to make sure [that we receive adequate] disaster response here in the community. Certainly we all are feeling for our health care providers. But for the longterm care of our community, for those who are out of work, we're on the front lines.
We're working with all of our partners locally, regionally and nationally to try to make sure we can have access to resources. Because as long as we have food, as long as we have funds, for as long as we can, we're going to be here to support our North Texas community.