DALLAS — The coronavirus crisis has a way of making our biggest problems even worse, like hunger. With 33 million people newly unemployed community food-assistance programs are getting slammed.
Hunger and food insecurity have become one of the most pressing needs of the pandemic and I want to know if we are meeting that need? Are we getting people the food that they need?
New national research from the Brookings Institute says about one in five young children are not getting enough to eat during the pandemic.
That brings me to May Elementary School.
It's one of 47 sites where the Dallas School District is preparing bags — with 15 free meals inside — that families pick up once a week. I'm talking to Michael Rosenberger, who runs food and nutrition for the district.
“Those areas that were already challenged are among the hardest hit. If the need was here before the outbreak, it's gone up to here now,” he said while lifting his hand higher in the air.
“You're filling this hole that already existed. But now the hole is bigger?” I asked.
“When we began this COVID-19 emergency meals program we were only serving 20,000 children. And now we average over 40,000 children every single week,” Rosenberger said.
Preparing food this way is more expensive. Food costs are up 15% because so many items are single-serve. Labor costs are up 25% because employees are getting hazard pay.
It also means cutting through red tape. Rosenberger said the federal government had to waive several regulations on school lunch. One waived regulation said a child can only be served one meal at a time and another that all meals have to be eaten at school.
“I've never seen a stronger, better, more coordinated effort to meet the food needs of food insecure needs of families in Dallas," he said.
While 30% of kids in the district are getting this emergency food, it's estimated that 90% of them are eligible. What's likely getting in the way are language barriers, lack of transportation or just that working parents are not available to come pick up the food.
Nationally, unemployment just hit 14.7%. The restaurant and hospitality industries have been especially hard hit in the pandemic. The Texas Restaurant Association says 688,000 restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed.
“What we try to do is really about the hot meal. It's about that one hot meal a day,” said Jordan Swim, who runs Vestals and Furlough.
An analysis by the Federal Reserve Board found the largest job losses during the pandemic are in leisure and hospitality, where employment is down 31%.
In the pickup line at Furlough Kitchen, I met Daniel Nellums, who worked at Café 43 in the Bush Library that's been closed for weeks. He’s got three kids at home.
“How many times have you been here to the furlough kitchen?” I asked him.
“This is my fifth, sixth, seventh time. The first day I came was the Saturday before Easter,” he said.
“How important is this food to you?” I asked.
“Very helpful. It's amazing to see what we are capable of doing, as a people,” he said.
Research from The James Beard Foundation found four out of five independent restaurant owners are uncertain their business can survive.
And Swim said food and hospitality are a part of the economy where the workforce is already living close to the edge.
“So many of our employees are hourly employees that are reliant on that week's cash to survive. So, it was the perfect storm for those employees,” he said.
The North Texas Food Bank is distributing boxes full of food at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie. The line of cars to pick them up is out of the parking lot and down the street. They’re providing a 25-pound box of dry food and a 15-17 pound box of produce designed to supplement 30 meals.
Compared to before the pandemic, they're now handing out 75% more food, by weight. Trisha Cunningham is the president and CEO.
“What's your reaction to seeing a line like this?” I asked her.
“When I pulled up this morning — sorry, I’m going to get emotional here — when I pulled up this morning it broke my heart to see all these cars that were lined up to get a twenty-dollar box of food. And to know we're on the front lines, to be able to help them feed their families is so humbling,” Cunningham said.
Food banks are facing their most trying times ever.
The demand for food by newly unemployed people is unprecedented. At the same time, their largest source of food donations — unused product from supermarkets and retailers — has dried up as consumers clear the shelves.
At this mobile event, Cunningham realized 3,000 boxes would not be enough food. She immediately called the food bank to send 3,000 more.
“It doesn't seem possible that everyone is going to get food today,” I said.
“It's very possible that even with this double amount that we brought out that we may still have to turn people away. My hope is that we can try to feed as many people that are hungry that we possibly can,” Cunningham said.
And they did turn people away. Across Texas, at events like these, food banks are running out of supplies 30% of the time, according to Feeding Texas.
“I still see all the cars that are lined up here. We don't know how long those lines are going to be there. We don't whether its two months, six months, or two years,” Cunningham said.
Schools are scrambling to get food to kids, but we know kids are still going hungry. And charities and food banks have stepped up to meet the need, but it's clear they're struggling to meet demand. When it comes to hunger and food insecurity are we meeting the need?
The answer is no.
So, what can we do?
If you can afford it, click here. It’s an Amazon wish list for The North Texas Food Bank. You can buy them the food items they need right now, and shipping is free.
If you need food, visit the websites of Tarrant Area Food Bank or North Texas Food Bank to find locations where food is being distributed. And remember, if you go to pick up food make sure you arrive early.