Amidst the Coronavirus Crisis, Food Banks Struggle to Deliver Food to Hungry Americans

Interview with Lori Martin, founder and executive director of Haven's Harvest, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

The coronavirus pandemic has led to the most precipitous economic free-fall in U.S. history, with 16 million Americans filing for unemployment in the past three weeks. In less than one month, the coronavirus pandemic has displaced more than 10 percent of American workers, outpacing the worst month of the Great Recession.

Meanwhile, many of the workers considered essential are paid low wages without health insurance, just one illness away from disaster. These conditions have led to the steepest rise in hunger in the U.S. since the Great Depression. Many poor families can’t afford to buy food  and food banks are running out of basics as miles-long lines of cars wait to pick up anything they can get. Mutual aid groups have popped up in some cities to try to staunch the misery.

Over the past year, the non-profit New Haven, Connecticut group, Haven’s Harvest, has solicited and received food donations from restaurants, food markets, colleges and private events – and delivered them to needy day care centers, senior centers and low-income neighborhoods. But since the coronavirus pandemic and economic lockdown, the situation for food banks and their recipients has changed drastically.  Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Lori Martin, founder and executive director of Haven’s Harvest. Here, she explains that although things have changed, her organization is still doing their best to distribute food to hungry people.

LORI MARTIN: What has changed is that a lot of our receiving sites have now closed, like the day care centers and the schools, our senior day centers, and some of the senior subsidized housing have decided not to accept food to reduce the risk for residents. So not only is our food coming in from different places, but our receiving sites have also changed. So it doesn’t look anything like it did two weeks ago, but in the meantime, we’ve gotten huge donations by the literal tons of food from local universities as they closed down and consolidated their kitchens; and then as they went through the residential halls and pulled out shelf-stable food and frozen food and we also moved that on to places.

I’ve been working on the grassroots level to find other ways to get food into the community, and I’ve been working on this for awhile, but it really has moved forward with other organizations to get food to people who might be undocumented. Or to artists, for instance, folks in the gig economy or have already lost their jobs because their jobs ended.

There are some other grassroots groups like Black Lives Matter, and CT Core and CT Bail Fund and teachers who know their students and we coordinated with teachers outside of the schools to get food to families. Yeah, it’s been amazing. I’ve been explaining to folks that I want food to get into all the neighborhoods to make sure people are covered. But we can’t do that alone, we’re definitely working with people to figure that out. We’re working with organizers and they’re getting the food out.

MELINDA TUHUS: How do you see things going forward?

LORI MARTIN: I think it’ll shift; that’s what I think. I mean last Saturday, Trader Joe’s called with an extra five pallets of food, that’s what they initially said. But in fact, we distributed about 8,000 pounds of food in 14 vehicles in three hours. That’s a huge amount of food.

MELINDA TUHUS: How has the pandemic changed your volunteer base, with the shelter in place order?

LORI MARTIN: I’ve had some conversations with some volunteers in the past few days about going on sabbatical. Some volunteers have stepped back. Some volunteers I’ve asked to go on sabbatical because they’re getting closer to 80, and although they’re in good health, I’d like them not to be at risk. But other folks in the meantime have stepped up, because they’re not working and so they’re able to step up.

MELINDA TUHUS: I spoke again to Lori Martin on April 13, two weeks after my initial conversation. Lori, what has changed over the past two weeks?

LORI MARTIN: They have changed some because more sites that we work with have closed. The senior residential sites are largely closed. I think we’re still working with one site and that coordinator is accepting the food and rebagging it and then delivering it to individual apartments, which is lovely. But otherwise, we are creating new relationships with other organizations in order to get the food that we’re collecting out to folks in the community. So, I’m working with a collective to help get food into the undocumented community here in the city.

MELINDA TUHUS: We’re hearing that food banks around the country are running out of food, and families are lining up in their cars for blocks trying to get some. Have you noticed a drop-off in the food you collect? Where are you still picking up food?

LORI MARTIN: There is some drop-off, but there still is excess food. Our usual suppliers are small grocery stores in the area. A large national chain is still giving us food two times daily, and those amounts do vary, I guess depending on who has shopped and what has happened that day. So it’s nothing like what it looked like before March 12, just to say in terms of the regularity of the size of donations, although those things are still in place.

The universities that are local that had been giving us food, they’re not giving us as much food, but a couple of them are still in operation to feed students who are still on campus and so we do get food from them. So yesterday one donation was about 450 bagged lunches and some other trays of prepared food. So we still do get food and we have to figure out where that food can go.

I think our connections with the grassroots groups have deepened, and there’s a sense that we can do this together, and that the system needs to change in general, the food system in particular, but the other parts of all the systems in the country. And in this way I think our move forward will be more in solidarity so we can shift what the food system looks like, at least in this area. That I look forward to – it’s a good move for the future.

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