Amid pandemic, food assistance programs must meet increasing need

The holidays are right around the corner, and food traditions this year will not be the same.

Before the pandemic hit, almost one in five people in Berkeley were experiencing food insecurity, meaning they lacked access to enough food to sustain active and healthy lives.  COVID-19, coupled with high levels of unemployment, has exacerbated the issue.

By April, Berkeley Food Network, or BFN, was feeding 5,000 families a week; a threefold increase from about 1,600 before the pandemic. Some of these new clients are working families who lost their jobs and who never imagined they would experience food insecurity. Nationwide, Feeding America reported that four out of 10 people visiting food banks in the spring and summer were receiving assistance for the first time.

The pandemic has exposed and intensified preexisting disparities in diet and nutrition that lead to health disparities. Because many Black and Latinx families often have lower incomes, they lack access to healthier foods, which are often more expensive. Instead, unhealthy foods are disproportionately marketed to these communities, leading them to consume foods higher in fats and lower in fruits and vegetables at a much higher rate than predominantly white communities. Diabetes and other diet-related chronic diseases are a symptom of these inequities, which also make these individuals more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.

The pandemic has also laid bare inequities in the food system. While food banks have proven to be a vital source of healthy foods for many households during the pandemic, these organizations have suffered from inconsistencies in the supply chain, as they are often last in line to receive food.

Recognizing this challenge, as well as the growing need for food assistance, organizations such as BFN are finding it necessary to diversify food sources.

One of the main ways we are doing this is by ramping up our food recovery program. Food waste in the United States is estimated to be between 30{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} to 40{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} of the food supply. By partnering with grocery stores, farmers’ markets, local farms and other local businesses, we are able to recover thousands of pounds of edible food that would otherwise go to waste.

Before the pandemic, the Edible Schoolyard garden at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School was open to schools and the public. After schools closed, the garden pivoted and started donating all of its organic produce to BFN. Through this partnership, BFN has been able to provide its clients with healthy, high-quality produce that would otherwise be too expensive to buy.

To stabilize our food supply, we must also work on sourcing directly from small local farmers for the first time. Purchasing food locally has a number of benefits: It creates a reliable supply of fresh produce for clients and supports local farmers and businesses. Interacting directly with farmers also allows for open dialogue on sustainable farming practices, which are better for the environment.

Sourcing for culturally appropriate foods is also vital. Food pantries should work to ensure that the food they make accessible is familiar to and desired by their clients. To effectively do this, pantries should be strategic in their partnerships and strive to work with people and businesses that reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

One of our partners in Berkeley, the Multicultural Institute, supports Latinx immigrants, low-income immigrant adults and youth. Their Guatemalan clients prefer black beans to pinto beans, which informed BFN’s decision to source more black beans.

Similarly, purslane, a vegetable distributed at our on-site pantry, was previously not popular among BFN clients. But after we learned that it is a popular vegetable in Mexican cuisine, we started distributing “verdolagas” (purslane in Spanish) to the Multicultural Institute. It’s now a client favorite.

Food insecurity brings with it social stigma, and treating clients with dignity should be at the core of every food pantry’s mission. Distribution models must ensure that food gets to those who need it — at locations and times that are most convenient for them and in ways that make them feel comfortable and empowered.

The farmers’ market distribution style, in which clients pick preferred foods in quantities they need, is a good way to do this. In the long run, it also helps reduce food waste.

One of our most successful food distributions is through the Berkeley Unified School District, which runs the “Grab and Go” Meal Program. The program serves meal bundles that include breakfast and lunch, fresh fruit and milk at seven distribution sites.

BFN provides bags of groceries to about 500 families to pick up alongside these meals. The convenience of not having to visit an on-site pantry, in addition to being served by people they are already familiar with, makes this distribution more comfortable for these families.

Even as organizations such as ours work to find new ways to feed the hungry, more than 50 million people, including 17 million children, are projected to be food insecure in the United States in 2020. Community support, such as donating to local anti-hunger initiatives, buying locally grown food and volunteering with local food pantries will directly support efforts to fight food insecurity.

Ashley Njoroge is the communication manager at Berkeley Food Network and a student at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Next Post

Grandmother shares family recipes on YouTube

Fri Nov 6 , 2020
Lynette Hammond has spent years watching others share cooking tips and recipes on YouTube. But now, thanks to bit of encouragement from her family, the 62-year-old grandmother of seven is making a name for herself on the video-sharing platform. In October, Hammond, who lives in Bossier City, Louisiana, posted her […]
Grandmother shares family recipes on YouTube

You May Like