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Coronavirus Pandemic Leaves Food Banks In Need Of Volunteers

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We've seen the lines across the country, cars backed up for blocks or filling parking lots with people hoping to get boxes of groceries provided by a food bank. By some estimates, the pandemic has made food insecurity twice as common here in the U.S. than it was a year ago. And as the need for food banks goes up, so does the need for volunteers. Grant Blankenship of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports that the pandemic is straining volunteer labor when it's needed the most.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: It's one of those gray, wet, warm days that pass for fall in Georgia. And cars and vans with their trunks and tailgates open are queued up to get into the parking lot across from a white clapboard church in the city of Warner Robins...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're going to start with these 'cause they take chicken and everything.

BLANKENSHIP: ...Where about 20 women box up groceries...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you, ladies. Y'all have a blessed day.

Thank you, ma'am. Have a blessed day.

BLANKENSHIP: ...And give them away. The groceries are from the Middle Georgia Regional Food Bank, the volunteer workers from a support group called Single Moms Connect. Theron Sheffield-Brown organizes these twice-a-month volunteer opportunities for the group. She says they definitely did not slow down for the pandemic.

THERON SHEFFIELD-BROWN: Because we knew the need. And people were out of work, you know, and they're not getting enough hours, so they're not getting enough food. Kids at home eating - I have two boys. They eat up everything. So you need extra food in your household.

BLANKENSHIP: This week alone, food aid like this is being distributed in 13 other places across 27 counties the Middle Georgia Regional Food Bank serves. The same will be true next week and likely the week after. Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer of Feeding America, says it couldn't happen without the work of volunteers like Sheffield-Brown and her friends.

KATIE FITZGERALD: We rely on about 2 million volunteers to help capture the food, store it, repack it and distribute it.

BLANKENSHIP: That's nationwide across the 200 food banks that work with Feeding America.

FITZGERALD: And many of our volunteers in our network are older. And people are making, you know, really good decisions about their own safety.

BLANKENSHIP: Because, as we know, older people, who often have time after retirement to do charitable work, are also extremely susceptible to complications from COVID-19. The Feeding America network includes the Middle Georgia Regional Food Bank, headed by Kathy McCollum. McCollum says there's been a massive jump in demand across her service area.

KATHY MCCOLLUM: We have reached, in second quarter, almost 3 million.

BLANKENSHIP: That's 3 million meals - a million more compared to the quarter before the pandemic. At the same time, some of her volunteers, wary of COVID-19, are staying home. That's meant some local food pantries paused their operations. But now McCollum is back up to speed. Out in the warehouse, she shows me why.

MCCOLLUM: So we've got National Guard soldiers here picking for the orders. We've got a National Guard person on the forklift.

BLANKENSHIP: Seven Guard members are working alongside some new paid warehouse workers. Leading the Georgia Guard members is Staff Sergeant Vanessa Williams.

VANESSA WILLIAMS: Anything dealing with the state and it's a state emergency, they call the National Guard. And so we go out, and we play superheroes.

BLANKENSHIP: McCollum says Guard members are slated to leave by early next month. In the meantime, she's adding more paid workers. Katie Fitzgerald of Feeding America says this need for extra workers at food banks did not exist in the years after the 2008 recession. It's unique to the pandemic.

FITZGERALD: So we know we're in a marathon now.

SHEFFIELD-BROWN: What the application process look like? They - we good on these cars?

BLANKENSHIP: Meanwhile, the women of Single Moms Connect will be out twice a month, helping families make ends meet as long as they can. For NPR News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Warner Robins, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.