Tips for Responding to Hunger in a Pandemic

Posted on March 16, 2020 by Ryan P. Cumming

 

As communities across the United States and around the world take steps to slow the spread of COVID-19, the routine daily movements of individuals, faith communities, businesses, and more have ground to a halt – or taken new shapes few anticipated. With closed signs hanging outside many restaurants and shelves standing empty inside many stores, it’s no surprise that many people are worried about having enough to get through the current crisis. And yet, in the midst of it, we need to remember that the fear of scarcity or vulnerability did not start with the novel coronavirus; it merely widened in scope. For many of our neighbors, the vulnerability of economic uncertainty and the concern of not having enough food or supplies to last the week or month was and remains a daily reality, exacerbated by the shutdown of daily life and the new significant threats posed by the virus.

The emergency food system – pantries, community meals, soup kitchens and more – is designed to provide for neighbors in need. But it also functions in many ways contrary to the best advice we are receiving about managing the COVID-19 crisis. We are being told not to congregate in large groups; community meals are often designed to bring together a large, diverse crowd for fellowship. We are being told to practice social distancing; many pantries are set up to foster close communication and contact between participants and volunteers. We are being told to stock enough food and household necessities to last 2-4 weeks; many emergency feeding programs rely on neighbors giving freely of their resources.

Hunger is still a challenge, even as our attention is focused on the health crisis at hand, and in many ways, it may get worse. What can we do to ensure that the virus that has brought so much of daily life to a grinding halt does not do the same to our work to end hunger? Below are some tips to support neighbors facing food insecurity during these challenging times. For more suggestions, you can visit the California Association of Food Banks or the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC), both of which have pages listing suggestions for adapting hunger programs to meet the current reality.

1) Change

If you work at or run a pantry, consider alternatives to your current model. This might mean providing a drive-through service, instead of indoor pick-up. Some food pantries have moved from a client-choice model to preparing bags, so that clients are not moving through the pantry or congregating together in lines or waiting areas. Be sure to have adequate signage and other communications if you make this shift. Also, remember to consider clients who do not have cars. One way to maintain client choice may be to offer 2 or more different types of bags, with different items in them. As a volunteer greets each guest, offer them the option of which bag they would prefer. This allows them the choice, while still maintaining the social distance needed with the new distribution. With stores running low on disinfectant supplies and paper goods, consider adding these to your distribution, if you don’t already.

2) Know

Knowing your neighbors is a key part of participating in any successful feeding ministry. So, too, is knowing as much as possible about COVID-19, including who is most vulnerable, what the symptoms are and where testing might be available. We know that some neighbors will be more vulnerable to COVID-19, depending on age. Consider increasing the distribution amounts for them, so that they don’t have to leave the house as often. If your ministry has clients with other underlying conditions, try reaching out to them to make sure they are healthy. If possible, prepare separate bags for special diets, including for people with conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes.

Also, help clients and volunteers learn more about COVID-19 by sharing information about the virus and about testing options. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have print resources available online at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/factsheets.html. Consider posting these or including them in bags of food for guests. Your local county health department may be able to share with you information about testing sites, including restrictions. Remember, some testing sites, including drive-through testing sites, are only open to people with a physician’s order for testing. You can also visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/index.html to learn more.

The ELCA is also providing information and resources via its website at https://elca.org/publichealth. There, you can find guidelines from the CDC, important links and other useful information.

3) Reduce

Reduce the number of people gathering at the pantry at one time. If possible, consider providing appointment times for clients, to reduce the number of people gathering at the space at a single time. If you already use an appointment system, reduce the number of people allowed at each appointment and consider expanding hours or availability to help diffuse the flow of people. The California Association of Food Banks also suggests cross-training volunteers to do multiple jobs and evaluating how many volunteers or staff are essential to help reduce the number of workers at each shift.

4) Protect

It is not known how long COVID-19 can live on surfaces. As you receive donations, talk with your suppliers about the steps they have taken to reduce the spread of the virus. Be sure anyone working in your facility or handling donations is not sick and is practicing good hygiene – washing hands frequently, avoiding touching their face, and avoiding contact with others to the extent possible. As you stock up on cleaning supplies for clients, be sure that your pantry has enough soap, sanitizer, disinfectant supplies, etc. for frequent cleaning and disinfecting for volunteers and the pantry, too. When packing bags of food for clients, reduce the number of people who are touching food or other donations as much as possible, and ensure that everyone who packs bags, stocks shelves or otherwise works with donations washes their hands. If you use clipboards for intake forms, sanitize them often.

5) Cancel

DMARC has postponed or cancelled all large volunteer events and hunger education and outreach events within their network, and the same stance should be adopted for other feeding programs. Any gatherings of large groups, including for service or education, should be postponed or cancelled. Unfortunately, this includes community meals, whenever possible.

6) Donate (But Ask First!)

Now is a critical time to accompany local feeding programs and ministries. As more folks hoard supplies and food, ensuring that our neighbors have enough is more important than ever. If you are able to support a local pantry or feeding ministry, please do so. But before you drop off a large donation, call them first! Managing donations takes a lot of volunteer time, which many ministries and programs may not have right now. Others may have specific needs, depending on their community. Try to reach out first, before choosing how to provide the best support.

7) Give

These are going to be trying times for anti-hunger work for a very long time. If you have the means, prayerfully consider supporting local hunger ministries by donating online, if the option is available. You can also continue to support the work of domestic and international ministries through ELCA World Hunger by visiting https://community.elca.org/elcaworldhunger. With churches closed and offering plates not being passed, it can be easy to forget how much our local, national and international ministries depend on the regular support received from gifts.

8) Support

Hunger is never just about food. Hunger is often a symptom of deeper vulnerabilities. Some of these economic vulnerabilities are being disclosed in rapid and jarring fashion now. The immediate impact of the widespread shutdown is being felt by service and hospitality industry workers in restaurants, bars, coffeeshops, hotels, etc., especially. Many workers in these industries work for hourly wages without paid sick leave. Servers and others depend primarily on tips, which won’t come when the business is closed. The long-term impact of the pandemic on the service industry and small businesses may be significant. Even as we follow the advice to stay home, consider purchasing a gift card from a local business, like a restaurant, coffeeshop or retail store, to use after the current crisis ends. These businesses provide the jobs that are needed to help people feed themselves and their families in the long-term. Many restaurants are also offering take-out options. If you are healthy and can do carry-out or curbside service, remember to tip the workers well. If possible, try to make the tip for carry-out at the same level as the tip you might leave for a sit-down meal.

9) Advocate

ELCA Advocacy has been actively providing alerts about legislation related to COVID-19. You can read the recent ELCA Advocacy blog here. Right now, legislators are preparing to vote on H.R. 6201 – the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This major legislation will be a major step in providing support to people in need across the country, both in the immediate and in the long-term. Call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 to get in touch with your members of Congress. H.R. 6201 takes major steps in ensuring that our neighbors in need will have access to nutritious food during the crisis by:

  • Increasing funding for TEFAP, the federal program that allows pantries and food banks to purchase food at low prices;
  • Expanding funding for low-income pregnant women and mothers whose jobs are impacted by COVID-19; and
  • Providing additional meals for elderly Americans who rely on the Senior Nutrition

In addition, the Act would prevent changes to the SNAP program that are slated to go into effect on April 1. These changes would remove the ability of states to make exceptions to the work requirements of SNAP during economic downturns, like the kind we are seeing now. This would mean that some SNAP recipients who work in businesses currently closed due to COVID-19 would be at risk of losing their benefits. H.R. 6201 as it is currently worded would prevent this from happening.

Stay up-to-date on the latest legislative information related to COVID-19 by following ELCA Advocacy on Facebook and by signing up for ELCA Advocacy e-Alerts here.

10) Witness

The church is and always has been caught in the tension of the already-but-not-yet Reign of God. We know by faith that God, even now, is moving the world toward wholeness and healing that surpasses even our deepest hopes during a pandemic. The church is called to bear witness to that hope to one another and to our neighbors. To be church means to be a sign of the bright future God has in store for all creation. But to be church also means to take seriously the threats to our health and wholeness now. As Lutherans, we affirm that both the complete healing to come and the healing we can experience now are gifts from God. The wisdom of public health officials, the empathy of neighbors sacrificing together to stem the spread of disease, and the tireless efforts of community leaders are gifts from God.

Maintaining social distancing, practicing good hygiene, and even changing the way we worship together may seem like mere practical steps. But they reflect some of our core beliefs as people of faith: that human wisdom is a gift of God to give effective shape to our love for one another; that protecting our most vulnerable neighbors is part of our vocation as the people of God; and that authentic worship can take many forms. Our faith also calls us to accompany our neighbors facing heightened anxiety because of both health- and economic-related uncertainties. To witness to hope means to be part of practical solutions, to show empathy and to respect the dignity of all our neighbors, especially in challenging times. It is to remember that even as we maintain social distance, we do so out of love and concern and not out of fear.

To be the witness God calls the church to be means being both wise and “foolish” at the same time – wise, in that our actions are driven by the best information we have available, and “foolish,” in that we bear witness to hope, even in the midst of crisis. At work in this tension is where we are called to be and who we are called to be, during a pandemic – and long after.

To learn more about the church’s “caring response in times of public health concerns,” visit the ELCA’s website at https://elca.org/publichealth. There are links on that page to resources for your congregation to pray for healing and health during this time.

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