MASSACHUSETTS — When it comes to food insecurity in our community, there are many facts we may not know but one aspect is certain: A lot of hungry people are out there, and the number is growing.
More than 37.2 million people struggled with hunger prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Of those, 11.2 million were children. People facing hunger in the United States also reported needing an additional $20.6 billion to meet their food needs.
The pandemic only made that worse.
Among the many casualties of the coronavirus pandemic is a sense of security at America’s dinner tables. To stave off the deepening crisis, a complex network of food banks and food pantries has stepped in to provide crucial resources in one of America’s greatest times of need.
Curious about how food banks do it, or who is eligible for assistance? Here are five things you may not know about your local food bank:
1) The coronavirus is profoundly affecting hunger in Massachusetts.
In Massachusetts, about 15 percent of residents will be considered food insecure by the end of 2020, according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization.
Nationwide, more than 54 million Americans may find themselves staring at sparse or empty plates before 2020 is over.
That’s 17 million more Americans struggling with food insecurity than before the pandemic. That’s about twice the population of New York City.
RELATED: Millions Made Hungry By Pandemic Could Include Your Neighbor
2) Food banks and food pantries are not the same things.
Food banks and food pantries are not interchangeable.
A food bank collects and distributes food to hunger-relief charities. According to Feeding America, food banks act as food storage and distribution depots for smaller, front-line agencies and typically don’t distribute food directly to those who need it.
Food pantries, however, typically are members of food banks functioning as its arms by reaching out to communities directly. Some organizations use mobile food pantries, which are better able to reach people in areas of high need.
Food banks and food pantries do have some things in common, though. Each relies on the generosity of donors and volunteers to carry out their day-to-day operations.
3) You don’t have to be unemployed or eligible for SNAP benefits to use a food bank.
Food insecurity doesn’t discriminate, especially during a pandemic. It’s a complex issue sandwiched in with other systemic challenges, including poverty, low wages, affordable-housing shortages, chronic and acute health problems, high medical costs, and social isolation.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, the cars started to get nicer,” Antony Bland, a volunteer at North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry, told North Hollywood Patch. “You see a Lexus, a Mercedes, a brand-new BMW. It’s people who just lost their jobs, it’s not like that guy is any worse off than the guy driving the old Toyota.”
Simply put, most food banks serve any family, child, senior or other individual at risk of hunger. While some food banks have different requirements for who can use services, most have no requirements at all.
Most food bank employees and volunteers will tell you SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — is the most important social safety net in the fight against hunger. If you use a food pantry but do not receive SNAP benefits, applications can be submitted online, by mail or by phone. If you are eligible, you will receive benefits. Contact your SNAP office for more details.
4) Food banks often provide more than food.
While most food banks keep a list of items that clients regularly need, others accept personal care and household items, which aren’t covered by food assistance programs such as SNAP. The list often includes diapers, laundry detergent and feminine hygiene products.
If you’re stumped about what to donate, just look in your own pantry. Families struggling with hunger often can’t afford the staples that others normally have stocked at home. Check out your pantry and go from there. Even specialty foods such as olive oil, dressings or marinades can be helpful if they don’t need to be refrigerated.
5) A cash donation can go a lot further than a food donation.
According to Kathryn Strickland, Feeding America’s chief network officer, “Food banks are very good stewards of cash. What we’re able to do with $1 is leverage it and purchase food at wholesale. It goes farther than if we purchased food at the grocery store.”
Donated funds also help to buy foods that are harder to donate but more nutritious — fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen meat, milk and eggs are all good examples. With every $1 donated, some food banks can provide up to four full meals.
Here are some examples of how food banks can stretch a dollar:
$100 can purchase 10 cases of shelf-stable milk
$2,000 can purchase 10 tons of potatoes
$5,000 can purchase almost an entire truck filled with a variety of fresh produce
Find your local food bank
Make a donation to Feeding America*
“The Impact of Coronavirus On Food Insecurity”
Take action against hunger
Patch has partnered with Feeding America to help raise awareness on behalf of the millions of Americans facing hunger. Feeding America, which supports 200 food banks across the country, estimates that in 2020, more than 54 million Americans will not have enough nutritious food to eat due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. This is a Patch social good project; Feeding America receives 100 percent of donations. Find out how you can donate in your community or find a food pantry near you.
This article originally appeared on the Boston Patch