Local food aid organizations are feeling the effects caused by COVID-19. As local businesses close and their workers unexpectedly lose their jobs, more Wisconsin residents may need to depend on food aid organizations.
Michelle Orge is the President and CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin. Second Harvest is the largest food bank in south-western Wisconsin, and distributes food and supplies to 250 other food aid operations throughout the region. She says food pantries and banks are preparing for more food insecure Wisconsinites.
“Most [organizations] are probably going to need to start distributing more food,” says Orge. “A lot of people who are working in the service industry are not going to be working…it’s going to be a huge influx.”
Orge points out that many who use Second Harvest’s resources are often financially unable to stockpile food and supplies. Many residents who use local food banks to supplement their dietary needs often live paycheck-to-paycheck and are unable to bulk-buy groceries to last several weeks.
“They don’t have these stores of food in their home, so for them stocking up often means stocking up from scratch. That’s harder given the resources they’ve got,” she adds.
According to Orge, Second Harvest is planning to put out approximately 100,000 pre-packed boxes of food in the next six to eight weeks.
But in order to prep those pre-packed meal boxes, local food aid charities require essential elements that are currently in short supply: space and volunteers.
On Tuesday, Governor Tony Evers issued a moratorium on gatherings of more than 10 people. There are some exemptions, including food aid organizations. But to reduce the risk of contagion, food pantries are still limiting the number of volunteers working together at the same time.
This creates a Catch-22. Second Harvest is planning on putting out 100,000 prepared meal boxes in the next 6-8 weeks, as unemployment begins to rise due to business closures. River Food Pantry is also planning to put out thousands of meal boxes in coming weeks, according to Charles McLimans, CEO and President of River Food Pantry.
“We need to be able [to process the food]. That takes a lot of labor. If you have a depleted labor force, if employees are self-selecting, if employees are ill; who’s going to be doing it? This could turn into a situation where we have to turn out the National Guard,” McLimans says.
So, food charities need person-power to pack these meal kits. But they have to be careful about social distancing and being sure any volunteers are appropriately spaced apart. They also have to ensure proper sanitation measures are taken while volunteers handle and prepare the food.
And, they need to find space, according to McLimans.
“I’ve heard the possibility of turning the Aliant Energy Center into a huge distribution hub so that people could literally drive up and get boxes of food,” he says.
Food banks aren’t the only organizations trying to adapt to changing circumstances. Madison schools are closed indefinitely, but families can pick up breakfast and lunch from ten food truck sites located outside schools. But parents can only pick up those meals during a 45-minute window in the middle of the day.
Long-term planning of school meals has also been impacted. The REAP Farm to School program connects farmers in the greater Madison area to local schools. With Madison’s school closed indefinitely, the program is beginning to plan ahead to future school years.
Haley Traun is Farm to School’s Education Coordinator. She says the suspension of schools throughout the state came at a time that won’t heavily impact the bottom lines of farmers who participate in the program.
“I’ve talked to a few farmers and people are in high spirits, which is nice to hear,” says Traun. “Last Spring in 2019 MMSD [Madison Metropolitan School District] spent about $45,000 in local foods, so we’re going to take a hit on that. But, I think that farmers are working really hard to implement direct-to-consumer ways of getting their product out there. And they’re just hoping farmer’s markets are going to be opening up as soon as possible.”
Sarah Elliot is Market Manager of the Dane County Farmers’ Market — which is closed indefinitely. Elliot says local farmers who sell directly to consumers and restaurants are facing cancellations and closures that will reduce or eliminate their income.
“This kind of uncertainty around when markets will open is another crushing blow to those farmers. They don’t know if they should start seeding, are they going to end up with a bunch of product that they don’t have a place to move? And that uncertainty puts a lot stress on farmers,” explains Elliot.
Dane County Farmers’ Market and FairShare CSA Coalition are currently on a crowd-funding campaign to assist farms and food producers who may lose income because of COVID-19.
The Trump administration, which has been historically strict on federal food aid programs such as SNAP, changed its tone this week, with a reversal of the White House’s proposed rule changes to the program.
Originally, the administration’s rule change for the program would have forced recipients to work a minimum of 20 hours a week to receive SNAP benefits. As part of the federal government’s relief programs, the rule change has been temporarily shelved — but only for the duration of the outbreak.
Congress has also introduced a bill that would infuse $400 million into the SNAP program through next September. The hope is to financially bolster the program through not only the COVID-19 outbreak, but any economic fallout that the pandemic may cause. The bill would also allocate $400 million in federal funding to be distributed to food banks throughout the nation
The proposed bill, however, has yet to be voted on. And any monetary infusion to local food aid organizations is, at the earliest, weeks away.
Until that time, local food aid charities will still rely on the community to provide a bulk of their funding and materials. According to both Orge and McLimans, residents interested in helping out should look to donate money instead of food products. Orge also adds that Second Harvest will require additional, specialized volunteers in the coming weeks.
[The music in this episode is Are We Loose Yet by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)]
[Photo c/o WikiMedia Commons]