Families Strained by the Pandemic Are Turning to Food Banks Struggling to Keep Up

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Nothing about the last few years has been easy for Jessica Higginbotham, a 40-year-old mother of five. First she needed a heart transplant, then a second heart and a kidney transplant. Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic infected her and three family members, and led to her husband losing a significant portion of his hours at work. Taken together, these challenges strained the family’s financial resources, and required they do something no family ever wants to: seek out food assistance.
“When it got really bad with the money, it was either pay the light bill or have food on the table,” says Higginbotham.

On that front, she’s far from alone. Even before COVID-19 stripped people of their jobs, shuttered businesses and claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives, some 13.7 million U.S. families—10.5% of households—experienced food insecurity at some point in 2019. The pandemic has only made things worse. Researchers at Northwestern University estimate that food insecurity rates have more than doubled, now impacting as many as 23% of U.S. households this year.
Among families with children, the problem is all the more dire. Food insecurity can delay brain development, cause children to fall behind in school, and culminate in behavioral issues. As of July, approximately 14 million kids weren’t getting enough to eat, according to a Brookings Institution report.

Meridith Kohut for TIME A week before Thanksgiving, cars line up at a food distribution site run by the Houston Food Bank in Houston on Nov. 17.

Meridith Kohut for TIME Children at the food distribution site run by the Houston Food Bank.

Meridith Kohut for TIME Boxes of food are loaded into cars at the food distribution site run by the Houston Food Bank.
The profound consequences of hunger have led many families, including the Higginbotham’s, to food charities that are themselves fighting to keep up with skyrocketing demand. Take the Houston Food Bank for example. In an average year, the charity and its 1,500 partners distribute 450,000 pounds of food per day in a 18-county Southeast Texas Region, according to Houston’s NBC affiliate, KPRC. Now, the charity is distributing 800,000 pounds per day.
Feeding hundreds of thousands of families amid a pandemic that has left 5.3 million more people unemployed than were in February 2020 isn’t as simple as getting more suppliers to donate food: Food charities have also had to grapple with how they can distribute significantly more food with much less physical contact, to mitigate the chance of spreading COVID-19 between volunteers and food recipients. Many food charities have also cut down on the number of volunteers they can accommodate, and the age ranges of volunteers they can accept. (Before the pandemic, a sizable proportion of frequent food bank volunteers were retired and elderly individuals who can no longer volunteer in-person safely due to their advanced risk of contracting a serious bout of COVID-19.)

Meridith Kohut for TIME Jessica Higginbotham, second from right, is thankful she was able to cook dinner for her five children on Nov. 17, 2020. She survived heart and kidney transplants in 2019; she and three other members of her family had COVID-19 this year. The health issues, paired with her husband Jeremiah’s losing hours at work, cost the Baytown, Texas, family most of their life savings.

Meridith Kohut for TIME Jessica Higginbotham, center, prepares dinner with her children and husband on Nov. 17. “When it got really bad with the money,” says Higginbotham, 40, “it was either pay the light bill or have food on the table.”
Across the country, the challenges have resulted in miles-long lines of cars waiting in line for volunteers to deposit bags and boxes of essentials—eggs, rice, beans, chicken, potatoes, etc.—in their car trunks, and pleas for those who have not been financially impacted by COVID-19 to make donations to food charities in order to sustain those that have.
As we approach the holiday season, at which point a litany of economic protections—including a moratorium on most evictions, forbearance for student loans and extra unemployment—are set to expire just as COVID-19 cases hit new high-water marks, Thanksgiving might be an especially challenging day. Once a time for large family gatherings and hearty meals, a lot of families will go without either.

Danny Wilcox Frazier—VII for TIMEStaff and volunteers prepare food for distribution at the new CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank in Iowa City on Nov. 17.

September Dawn Bottoms for TIMEStacy Aaensom, of Tulsa, Okla., on May 4. She picked up groceries at the Iron Gate drive-through food pantry for some relatives. “They haven’t asked me to do that but they don’t have a car,” she says, “so I’ve been doing that to help them out.”

September Dawn Bottoms for TIMEWorkers at the Iron Gate drive-through food pantry in Tulsa on April 7.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIMEAn aerial view of a food distribution site during the stay-at-home order in Centreville, Md., on April 17.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIMEMaryland National Guard members prepare food at a distribution site in Stevensville, Md., on April 17.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIMEA food distribution site in Centreville, Md., on April 17. The Maryland Food bank had seen a 100% demand increase, coupled with a massive decline in donations of food, as people conserve their non-perishable canned goods.

Yffy Yossifor—Star-Telegram/APPeople line up in their cars to receive Thanksgiving meal boxes, which include a turkey and pantry items, from the Tarrant Area Food Bank in Arlington, Texas, on Nov. 20.

Rick Bowmer—APCars line up at the Utah Food Bank’s mobile food pantry in West Valley City on April 24.

William Luther—The San Antonio Express/APRows of cars wait at Traders Village for the San Antonio Food Bank to begin food distribution on April 9.

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