While many businesses and locations were closed due to the pandemic, food banks like the one in my neighborhood saw an increased demand for service. Feed America, America’s largest domestic food relief agency and America’s largest collection of food banks noted that:
- Between March 1st and December 2021, they served over 5.3 million meals
- 80% of its food bank’s reported serving more people than usual during the pandemic
- Nearly 40% of recipients were new to the food bank
- As of May 2021, Feed America reports that its network is feeding over 55% more people than before the pandemic
It’s safe to say that food banks are meeting a large and crucial need in America, now more than ever. In the wake of the Covid-19 Pandemic, millions have lost their jobs, many of which were already struggling with caring for themselves and their family financially. Many have had to decide whether the little income they have goes to paying bills or towards affording groceries. It’s a decision that about 57% of people served by Feed America, prior to the pandemic, have to make every day and that should not be the case.
While many more families have had to reach out to food banks or their local food pantry others still don’t know where they can find support near them. Some still don’t know where to began or fear the stigma that is still associated with seeking aid from food banks.
Others, because of how Covid-19 has impacted them personally or those around them, might be interested in learning more about food banks and how they can support their community by getting involved or volunteering locally for a neighborhood food bank.
Where ever you find yourselves, I hope this article will shed light on how to get access to food support and ways to get involved with organizations that feed people and families in need. But first, you might be asking, what is a food bank?
So What is a Food Bank?
Food Bank– Store large quantities of food for distribution to various places and families
Food Pantry– Are much smaller distribution centers, varying from place to place, generally serve as closer/local locations for individuals and families to pick up food
Mobile Pantry– Food pantry on wheels
A traditional soup kitchen– Typically provides a hot meal to individuals. Often that meal is the only meal those individuals have access to that day.
Many can thank food banks for being around but Food banks did not always exist. Before food banks become national staples that support various communities throughout the U.S., they were a revolutionary idea starting in the 1960s. it wasn’t until a man named John van Hengel was inspired by a conversation he had while at a soup kitchen in Phoenix Arizona.
Looking for a food bank, food pantry, or soup kitchen near you: Search by your Zipcode at WhyHunger
Origins of Feed America Food Banks
Who Was John van Hengel?
John van Hengel was born in Waupun, Wisconsin. By the 1960s he found himself in Phoenix, Arizona. Recently divorced, other personal problems, and struggling to rebuild his life; John was looking for something, anything, to pursue with passion. He soon gained employment as a bus driver, coaching sports, and helping the soup kitchen for the Immaculate Heart Church (Chicago Tribune, 2005). But it would be on one particular day that John would have a life-changing conversation. A conversation that has changed many more lives than he would have imagined.
The Start of Something New
In 1967 he found himself in conversation with a woman. She had 10 children and a husband on death row. But with all her struggles she said food had not been one of them. She shared that she ‘shopped’ in refuse bins in the back of a nearby grocery store. After hearing this John investigated and noted that he found bins with frozen food still frozen and edible, loose carrots, and stale bread.
John then visited the store manager in the backroom and finding other things thrown out, asked if he could have the discarded items. The answer was yes. The answer was yes at other stores as well. John had found a purpose and began pursuing it with vitality (Chicago Tribune, 2005).
Soon John would establish St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, AZ as the nation’s first food bank. That first year John and his team would distribute 275,000 pounds of food to people in need. As word of the food bank’s success spread others started taking note. By 1977, food banks had been established in 18 cities across the country. Today Feed America has a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries across America (Feed America ‘Our History’, 2021).
Though John van Hengel is no longer with us, passing on October 5th in 2005 at the age of 83 post several strokes and Parkinson’s disease, his legacy lives on and serves over 46 million people with food annually (Chicago Tribune, 2005).
The Big Picture: Food Insecurity in America
It is important to note that John van Hengel sought to tackle food insecurity in his community. Through his work and dedication, along with the work of countless volunteers over the years, agencies like Feed America have grown to address food insecurity across the nation. But what exactly is food insecurity and what does it look like?
Food security is defined by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) as being “achieved when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” (Ministry of Health, Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, MDG Achievement Fund, United Nations Albania, n.d).
Therefore, it stands to reason that food insecurity is when individuals, families, communities, etc, experience a lack of accessible nutritional food.
A systematic review investing the role of food banks addressing food security and nutritional needs was published in 2017. Some of its findings provided alarming implications about food insecurity in America. It concluded that:
- The number of food bank clients was increasing
- 1 in 7 people in the USA use a food bank service each year
- Donations to food banks are not increasing with demand/ not appropriate for demand
- Sourcing sufficient amounts of high nutritional quality food is a challenge
- While local groceries and business are willing to donate extra produce, having storage, distribution and volunteer capacity is difficult
- Foodbank staff are not trained enough in nutrition to provide advice and education to clients
- Staff (usually volunteers) are unable to provide efficient advice and quality education to clients about the food available to them, thus clients are unable to take full advantage of the food resources around them
The review goes on to share that while food banks may not be able to resolve all client’s needs, they still play a vital role in addressing food insecurity.
In light of the pandemic and the increased number of families and individuals needing support from food banks, this review helps highlight how important food banks are and how we as a society need more in order to address food insecurity in our communities. But hope is not lost. Actually, in some places, people are seeing a need and trying to address food insecurity in traditional yet innovative ways. One way is literally just to grow it.
Innovation of Food Banks and Food Access: Grow Johnson County
Since their inception food banks continue to feed individuals and families. The recent pandemic highlights how easy it is for individuals to become food insecure when their source of income or ability to travel to accessible food is reduced. But food banks do much more for communities. In addition to providing food, more and more food banks are motivated by communities to provide nutritional food that better addresses the nutritional deficiency individuals may experience while being food insecure.
As a volunteer, I have seen firsthand how local food banks and panties try to provide fresh produce. Though this is a tall order especially for smaller and less funded rural food pantries to accomplish on their own, some are gaining the support they need from local businesses and even other nonprofits.
While living in Iowa I volunteered for a small food bank that received generous fresh produce donations from a fresh produce non-profit call Grow Johnson County. This non-profit, as its name suggests, desired to grown and provide fresh produce to food-insecure communities in Johnson County Iowa. Their goal is a large one.
To give some background, In Iowa, 1 in 8 individuals is food insecure while 1 in 7 individuals is food insecure in Johnson County. Food insecurity is further complicated because 40% of food insecure individuals are unable to participate in government assistance programs because they are above the 185% poverty rate (Johnson County Social service, 2017; Feeding America, 2018). Even among individuals who can receive food from local food relief agencies, these places often only have non-perishable food with little access to fresh produce. In a place where fresh produce is minuscule or nonexistent, Grow Johnson County would be the sole supplier of fresh produce for that community. But because of their hard work, community involvement, and volunteers, they have been able to supply more than they expected and expand more than they expected. Their growth ultimately benefits the community.
Grow Johnson County aims to provide fresh produce to food-insecure families in its community. Started in 2015, their mission has been to improve healthy food access through charitable food production and hands-on education. They have done so by being strategic in how they train their volunteer growers, of all ages and experiences, to sustainably grow to produce. From there 2020 annual report:
- They surpassed their annual 25,000 pounds of distributed yearly produce with 31,253 pounds grown. That amount was made up of
- 61 vegetable varieties all distributed across their network of
- 13 partner organizations.
Where the 2017 systematic review highlights areas food banks can be improved access to nutritional products and increase education on food nutrition, organizations like Grow Johnson County could be the innovative charitable fresh produce providers food banks and other food relief agencies need to have a greater impact on improving their client’s nutritional intake and nutritional education.
Did you enjoy this article? Here are some links for further reading.
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