KYW In Depth: Pandemic creates a hunger crisis Philly region has never seen before

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Food insecurity is a big problem in the U.S. during normal times. But several months into the coronavirus pandemic, the problem has reached a level that's hard to fathom, and hunger relief organizations like Philabundance are struggling to meet the huge demand for food. 

"We distributed nearly 13 million pounds of food, between March 1 and May 31. That is an 83% increase from the same time last year," Sara Hertz, senior vice president and chief development officer at Philabundance said on the KYW In Depth podcast. "We believe we will distribute 30 million pounds at least by the end of this year. Which is an awful lot of food, for us." 

The bottom line? 

"All the stops have been pulled out for months. And we don't know when we'll be able to put them back in," she added. 

Hertz says 50% of Philabundance's agencies are reporting that they need more food than Philabundance can provide. And food prices are rising, "30% at least, so it takes more donor money to buy the food, which is another challenge."

And there's another statistic that helps show how hard food insecurity has hit the Philadelphia area. 

"We see that 40% of people coming to food banks have never been to a food bank before,” she said. 

Hertz says hunger has affected more people in more places during the pandemic, including zip codes normally considered to be affluent. 

"The first place we heard about that was seeing a 60% increase in the number of people coming for food was in Haverford, on the Main Line. It's not probably the neighborhood that most people would think you'd be seeing that level of increased demand."

The enormous demand has forced Philabundance to change some of the logistics of how they operate. 

"We are actually purchasing more dry goods than we would previously, pre-COVID, have purchased. Pre-COVID, we really spent a lot of time getting donated food or purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables for people, and dairy. And now, our agencies are really asking us to get dry, shelf-stable foods," Hertz said. "Our model is really changed in order to meet the demand."

And they're trying to fill empty shelves with a lot less purchasing power. 

The donations Philabundance relies on to purchase food have been hit, just like everything else during the pandemic. 

"We have seen a 60% decrease in donations ... at the same time we were seeing a 60% increase in demand for food," Hertz said.  

One of the primary drivers of hunger is poverty, and they’re not seeing anything that makes them think the situation is going to improve anytime soon. 

"Unemployment is increasing. Schools are probably not going to open so people can't go back to work even if they could. The fact is, this is not necessarily COVID-related, but the fact that the Pennsylvania state minimum wage is $7.25, even pre-COVID, 40% of the people who visited one of our food banks were employed. But they still couldn't earn enough money to support themselves, let alone their children. That has to factor into everything that we do. So I would love to see something that says yes, we're turning a corner here. But every time we turn a corner it seems to be down the wrong path of the maze.” 

Right now, Hertz says Philabundance is concentrating on finding food, purchasing it in the quantities they need, and making sure there is enough to deal with this crisis that's still ongoing, as well as a second wave they fear could be around the corner. 

"I just walked through the warehouse the other day and I was really keenly aware that I had not, in my 18 months here, seen the shelves looking quite like they're looking now. But we are beginning to order food to stockpile it and get ready for the next wave or surge,” she said. 

In the past, Philabundance has gotten a lot of donations from food drives at local businesses or radio stations, but that's changed since those spaces emptied for coronavirus restrictions. 

"We're encouraging people to go to and participate in one of our virtual food drives," Hertz saif, "which is a fun, competitive, no-contact way to help us raise money for the food we need most badly."

If you want to help Philabundance provide food to people who need it, Hertz said the best way to help is to figure out if you can support them financially. 

And there's an important reason why donating money is more helpful than donating food. 

"Our buying power is basically stronger because of the volume we buy in, than most ordinary individuals and consumers can buy," Hertz said. "So if you were going to buy food and give it to us, we can actually buy multiples of what you would be able to buy with your dollar."

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