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Capital Area Food Bank Sees Massive Increase In Need During Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There's still plenty of food in America, but a lot of households face a food crisis. Remember that famous survey from a few years ago finding that many Americans could not pay a $400 emergency expense? Well, for many, the emergency has arrived, and so they are depending on people like Radha Muthiah of the Capital Area Food Bank.

RADHA MUTHIAH: So I'm now walking into the conveyor belt room in our facility in Northeast D.C.

INSKEEP: She spoke inside the food bank's cavernous warehouse in Washington. Volunteers were taking up their positions along an assembly line.

MUTHIAH: They're each standing on designated X's that are about 6 feet apart. And they're packing - let me see - a total of about 13 items into a box. So I see corn. I see cans of corn, mac and cheese, some soup cans, some rice, cereal, some shelf stable milk.

INSKEEP: Now, the first thing to know about the D.C.-area food bank is that it has existed a long time. It serves 400,000 people in need, even in good times, even in this very wealthy metro area.

MUTHIAH: Every time I see the statistic, too, I'm just floored. It's roughly 1 in 11, 1 in 12 of those who live in our area are uncertain where their next meal is going to come from. You're right in that it's an area of great wealth, but it's also an area of great inequities.

INSKEEP: Traditionally, the Capital Area Food Bank obtains surplus food that is donated by area grocery stores. Now the groceries are giving much, much less, and the Capital Area Food Bank is having to raise money to pay for food shipments just as the need for their food boxes has increased.

MUTHIAH: We all know, at the beginning of this pandemic in particular, people were rushing to the stores, you know, ensuring they had a week or two worth of supplies at home and, in some cases, panic-buying. And so what that resulted in was just nothing on the shelves and, therefore, close to nothing that would be available to be donated to food banks like ours.

INSKEEP: Are you able to meet demand?

MUTHIAH: Our demand is increasing significantly, and I'll explain how it takes two forms. One is, typically, prior to the pandemic, those who rely on the food bank would rely for about three to five days a month worth of food. So it's really to tide them over, if you will. But ever since the pandemic hit, people are being asked to keep one to two weeks' worth of food at home. So just with the existing numbers of food-insecure individuals, we saw our demand go up about three times.

Now what we're seeing added to that is just the impacts of the economic slowdown. And we have so many more newly unemployed individuals who, in the past, were able to live paycheck to paycheck but now are finding it very hard to meet their basic services, food included. So demand is increasing. And, in fact, what we hear from our partners is anywhere from 30% to a full 100% increase in the amount of food that people are looking for and in the number of people who are coming to their pantries. So demand is increasing. We are trying our best through increased purchasing.

INSKEEP: It must be weird for the individual who has just never relied on your services, has never been on food stamps, maybe had a good job two months ago but just didn't have very much money in the bank - which is super common - and now they're in this suddenly desperate situation. It must be strange for them to go to the area church or where it is that they find your box.

MUTHIAH: You know, it really is. And we experience this every day. We've got something called a Hunger Lifeline. It's a phone number that people can call into, especially if they're new, for them to understand where they should go, what they should bring, how they can avail, you know, of some food.

And I've heard and listened in on some of those phone calls, and for the most part, you're hearing people start with an apology, to say I'm so sorry to have to call you to ask for food. I've never had to do this before. In fact, I volunteered at your facility to help, you know, pack food or distribute food. But I am now in need, and I just do not really know where to go, and that's why I'm calling you. So many of the calls take that type of a form. And it's sad. It's disheartening for them. It's - and some will say they're embarrassed, you know, to call, but they are just in so much need.

INSKEEP: What have you thought about when you have seen or read news reports about farmers dumping dairy products and other food products because they can't get them to a proper market anymore?

MUTHIAH: You know, this is - it's a very important point, and obviously, it's been in the media of late. The way that these supply chains for food have been geared in this country, you know, for the last decade or so, they've been geared towards providing food through restaurants and to food service providers. Over 50%, I believe, of the food supply goes in that direction.

So what we've seen in the last several weeks is the attempt to pivot and reorient the supply chain towards grocery stores, food banks and other institutions that are providing groceries that can be cooked at home. So we're very optimistic about that. And so we look forward to receiving tens of thousands of boxes of produce a month that will enable us to get that good, healthy food to those most in need.

INSKEEP: Radha Muthiah of the Capital Area Food Bank does not expect this to be a short-term change. The food bank is planning on drastically higher demand for its food for at least 12 months.

(SOUNDBITE OF NUJABES' "VOICE OF AUTUMN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.