The Road Ahead: Addressing Elevated Hunger Needs in 2021

The effects and challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020 will continue to impact the economic and hunger landscape in 2021 and beyond.

Continuing a special virtual series for NTFB supporters, NTFB’s Chief Operations Officer Brad Stewart recently offered a unique closer look at some of the most pressing issues facing hunger, as well as the Food Bank’s plans for addressing food insecurity in North Texas and the innovative and strategic approach behind our work.

Brad began with highlighting how the pandemic hindered the significant progress that was being made in addressing hunger needs (trending with broader economic conditions) pre-COVID, leading to the current 19% food insecurity rate with 40% of those seeking assistance are doing so for the first time.

The NTFB staff and Partner Agency network – supported by the immense generosity of the community – responded quickly and strategically to the increased need and the changes required to provide food safely and efficiently in this new environment. Now, the Food Bank is focused on sustaining these levels among fluctuating food markets and cycle-based government support.

Brad provided an overview of NTFB’s next steps, including: strategic investment in growing our emergency food distribution; geographic and demographic equity; and tackling the root causes of hunger by strengthening our partnerships with agencies and organizations that provide critical wrap-around services that address financial stability, education, and physical and mental health.

We invite everyone to join us in the hunger fight by donating, volunteering and/or becoming an advocate. Email corporate@ntfb.org for sponsorship opportunities.

Brad’s full video the presentation is below, followed by the participant Q&A organized by topic.

Q&A

Operations

How has the global pandemic affected operations globally? Do you see any additional impact in 2021? The Feeding America Network has seen the needs grow exponentially due to COVID-19. Locally, we went from having one of the lowest food insecurity rates in years to currently seeing one of the highest. Early in the pandemic, we all heard stories of empty shelves in local stores. With higher demand, supply was very tight, and everyone was vying for the same resources – shelf stable and canned foods. This led to a strain in the global supply chain and our partners could not donate as much as they normally do. It also led to higher prices and longer lead times. We have had to purchase more food items to maintain the inventory necessary to meet the increased demand. We are committed to providing more food to our region– even in an unpredictable supply chain.

What is the actual increase of need in 2020? Estimated growth, or reduction, in the next 3 years? According to Feeding America, before the pandemic, national food insecurity levels were the lowest they had been in 20 years, yet 35.2 million individuals, including 10.7 million children, still lived in food-insecure households. Because of COVID-19, progress made to food insecurity in the U.S. will likely be wiped out and will take years to overcome. Feeding America also estimates the total need for charitable food over the next year will be 14.2 billion meals (17 billion lbs.) – that is over three times its network’s typical annual distribution of 5 billion lbs. In the NTFB service area, the food insecurity rate in 2020 was 17%, an increase of 25% from 2018 projections.

As we have worked to serve people during this time, we have understood that this will be a marathon and not a sprint, likely to last at least half a decade or more.

How much has the need increased since March of 2020? What needs to happen to reduce the current need in your opinion? It is safe to say that the need has grown significantly, and our output has grown in tandem, at least doubling since March at the onset of the pandemic. Anecdotally, the timing of stimulus packages has led to shorter lines, but what is most impactful would be changes or increases to the SNAP program which serves as a lifeline for those that we serve. We will also be leveraging NTFB’s food assistance as an entry point for our neighbors to access the additional wrap-around services offered by our Partner Agencies and other organizations that address the underlying causes of hunger, including financial stability, education, and physical and mental health.

How has the Feeding America organization supported, influenced, or assisted NTFB regarding increased needs due to the pandemic? Feeding America has served as an incredible partner during this trying time, from brokering food donations to providing support in the areas of food sourcing, advocacy, marketing and communications, and much more. To address the increased need from COVID-19, NTFB was fortunate to receive a $600,000 grant as part of the historic $100 million donation to Feeding America by Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos. We distributed the funds to support our Feeding Network Partner Agencies as they modified their services to respond. This is an unprecedented time, but Feeding America stepped up in a big way.

Would it be useful to work with the actual growers and food processors in some way? The Food Bank does have partnerships with growers who donate foods. Often that is how we receive produce that is non-traditional in shape! Additionally, one of our legislative priorities this year is to advocate for the Texas Legislature to fully fund the Surplus Agricultural Products Grant to ensure food banks can continue to provide healthy produce to Texans during the pandemic. The current proposed 41% funding cut would prevent food banks from acquiring 19.8 million pounds of local produce, hurting both Texas farmers and low-income Texas families.

How do we improve the amount of quality protein we can distribute in the kid’s backpacks through the Food 4 Kids backpack program? In 2019 the Food Bank moved to include nut butter in the packs to aid this effort. We have also worked to find other protein solutions that can meet the need. By moving to include donated nut butter, we can provide a more cost-effective menu. We are always seeking community connections for large-scale donations.

What are your priorities when it comes to upcoming stimulus packages? Feeding America has released its priorities they would like to see in next stimulus package:

•            Increase the adequacy and duration of SNAP benefits by at least 15 percent for the duration of the pandemic and economic recovery.

•            Provide $900 million for food purchases through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to help food banks meet emergency need in communities across the country.

•            Invest $543 million in the infrastructure of our nation’s charitable food system. This funding will allow food banks and partner distribution organizations in every state to better serve their communities by helping to address the severe shortage of vehicles, refrigerators and freezers across the network.

•            Increase funding and provide adequate flexibility to ensure Child Nutrition programs like Pandemic EBT can continue serving children in need through the summer and during future school closings.

We welcome all of our supporters to lend their voice to help us advocate for these critical issues.

The pandemic is evolving, how is NTFB planning on responding? While the strains of the pandemic might be different, the economic impact is the same: more people in need of resources than ever before. We will continue to stay nimble and provide our Feeding Network – including the mobile pantry – with as much food as possible for our neighbors in need. A few ways we are responding, include:

  • Aggressively seeking more donated product as we anticipate having to sustain this level of response for years to come.
  • Constantly balancing production demands with the supply of volunteers, looking for ways to keep them safe.
  • Waiving handling fees to make it easier for agencies to access food. We’re leveraging every avenue of support possible.
  • Utilizing the Progressive Growth Model to investing time and financial support in our network, identifying existing community organizers to build partnerships with and growing our emergency food distribution.
  • Again, looking to address the root causes of hunger and “shorten the lines.”

How, if at all, do you use data to make decisions around your strategic approach? Data is a critical part of our planning. In fact, in partnership with the consulting team at Bain & Company, we created a Hunger Index that maps out the gaps in our service down to the zip code level. These efforts are helping distribute more nutritious food more quickly to more hungry families in our community, including the addition of mobile pantry distribution sites and expanding our School Pantry program into three additional middle schools in DISD. From March 20 – Dec. 31, we have served 122,000+ households via 321 Pandemic Mobile Pantry Distributions

Volunteer

How are you recruiting and managing volunteers, now and going forward? Virtual volunteers? For now, we continue to have support from Get Shift Done employees and we also just received a team from the National Guard at our auxiliary warehouse. Our “regular” volunteer shifts are up on Thursday-Saturday, and we continue to have a need for mobile pantry volunteers. Safety remains our No. 1 priority and we have implemented and follow strict health and safety protocols. Visit NTFB.org/virtualvolunteer to learn about virtual opportunities, such as our Cards for Hope program and becoming a social media ambassador.  You can view all opportunities here: ntfb.org/volunteer.  

How can organizations support outside of monetary donations?

In addition to in-person volunteering and virtual opportunities, we also need advocates and healthy food donations. Especially with the recently commenced Texas state legislature session, we need people to champion the issue of hunger!

General

Does NTFB provide access to a rehabilitation program? The Food Bank works with a number of partner agencies, many of whom offer other wrap-around services including rehabilitation efforts.

What is NTFB’s biggest 2021 challenge? Supplies, distribution, volunteers, budget, internal staffing? 2021 has a variety of opportunities, and certainly the ones that are most top-of-mind are resources.

Supply: Our biggest challenge is access to supply, especially given unknown government support and our current dependency on purchased food to sustain our current pace of 130M meals annually.

Funding: As we are needing to purchase more food than ever before, increased funding is needed to meet the elevated need.

Volunteers: Without full return to work orders for many schools and business, our volunteer base remains diminished. Volunteers are the hearts and hands of our organization and we have many opportunities to get involved. Safety remains our No. 1 priority and we have implemented and follow strict health and safety protocols. All opportunities can be found here.

Staff: We commend our team for all that they do to meet the need for us but recognize that this elevated level of response can take a toll.

What changes (if any) have been made because of COVID that you could see NTFB keeping in place once things are back to “normal”? The way the Food Bank operates will likely never be “normal” in terms of how it was before COVID-19. We always say, no zip code or neighborhood is immune from hunger, and the pandemic has really showcased this truth and brought the issue to the forefront of the national narrative. Through continued communications and advocacy, we want to keep this issue top-of-mind to lead to systemic changes to “shorten the lines.” We will likely keep the increased warehouse shifts and truck routes to support increased need and growth across our service area, as well as enhanced support of our Partner Agencies. Virtual volunteer opportunities, as well as the new virtual food drive tool, have been a great chance to engage a new set of volunteers and supporters and we look forward to continuing and refining those. Finally, when we consider our distributions, we likely will continue to have increased mobile distributions.

How has the pandemic altered or changed your perspective towards fighting hunger in North Texas? COVID has altered almost all aspects of life in North Texas, but one thing that has blown our team away is the generous nature of our community. From new donors, fundraising partners and increased media coverage, the community has provided us with an unprecedented response. Hunger is no longer a “hidden” issue and this allows us the opportunity to harness the awareness and compassion in our community to further our mission to bridge the hunger gap in North Texas.

It would be great to hear whether NTFB’s funding (both government and philanthropy) is keeping pace with the current level of need. Our supporters and our advocacy efforts are helping the Food Bank meet the need, and we will need to continue to receive support at this historic level to be able to meet the ongoing challenges of our community.

How can NTFB help getting North Texans vaccinated? The Food Bank team is open to working with health officials to share literature about the vaccine at our Mobile Distribution sites and we piloted this effort at a recent site in Dallas.

Does the Food Bank have a way of teaching our neighbors about nutrition? The NTFB team has a dedicated Nutrition Services arm that is focused on providing the neighbors we serve with information on how to live a healthy lifestyle via the consumption of nutritious foods. There are a variety of recipes and other nutritional nudges available at ntfb.org/nutrition.

What other partnerships do you have to help kids get school supplies? While food is our core competency, we recognize the need to help provide other resources for families. Our grocery donation program often receives non-food items that we make available to our Feeding Network of more than 200 Partner Agencies for the neighbors they serve. In addition, the agencies often provide wrap-around services that ensure families have the support they need.