At one food pantry in Central Texas, the queue of cars waiting to pick up boxes of food stretches a quarter-mile. In Dayton, Ohio, the line extends about a mile.

In Pittsburgh, it’s miles, plural, as families wait hours so they won’t go hungry.

Across the country, one of the less visible parts of the social safety net — tens of thousands of food pantries and food banks — is starting to fray. The federal government must do more before it unravels.

Unsurprisingly, demand for food assistance is surging.

With coronavirus keeping families at home, people across the DMV region are braving long lines at grocery stores to stock up on food, water and other supplies. (Ray Whitehouse/The Washington Post)

Nearly 10 million Americans lost their jobs in just the latter half of March, according to initial unemployment benefits claims, and many of those workers are struggling to pay their bills. Children are stuck home from school, which means parents who had relied on free or reduced-price school lunches are scrambling to assemble or pick up additional meals during the week. Grocery stores cannot stock products as quickly as people want to purchase them, and many households with vulnerable family members fear cramming into crowded supermarkets.

And so Americans who never saw themselves at risk of food insecurity are turning to private nonprofits that distribute free meals.

In surveys of food banks conducted from March 19 to 23 by Feeding America, the nation’s largest organization for domestic hunger relief, 92 percent reported increases in demand for food assistance. The size of the increase varies by location, with some reporting doubling or even septupling their usual distributions. Dayton’s The Foodbank Inc. served about 175 to 200 households per day before the crisis; one day last week, it distributed food boxes to 667 households through its limited-hours, drive-through-only service.

“I’m worried about running out of food,” says chief executive Michelle Riley.

Just as demand has surged, donations from local grocers and supermarkets have plummeted. Understandably, many have little inventory left over to donate. About two-thirds of food banks surveyed nationwide have experienced a decline in food donations, Feeding America reports.

Meanwhile, these organizations’ other expenses have gone up.

About two-thirds have reported a decline in volunteers — partly because volunteers tend to be retirees, older people who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Some organizations, such as ECHOS in Houston, have been offering their paid staff temporary raises in gratitude for their willingness to continue working under stressful conditions. ECHOS and other organizations have had to buy new software and supplies to adapt to social-distancing measures that require some staff to work remotely, and others to implement new food-delivery logistics on-site.

And as the economy sinks into recession, many worry that the private donations they rely on will dry up.

“No crisis has ever strained our ability to serve those in need as much as coronavirus,” says Derrick Chubbs, president and chief executive of the Central Texas Food Bank. His organization did not have money set aside in its operating budget to purchase food needed to replace disappearing grocery donations. The cancellation of a major Austin music festival, which usually raises about $200,000 for the food bank, has intensified the financial strain.

The federal government has taken steps designed to beef up food assistance. These include funding for additional commodity purchases from farmers, for emergency food programs; and allowing states to temporarily give more households the maximum food-stamp benefit.

Much more needs to be done.

First, the Agriculture Department needs to reduce cumbersome paperwork requirements for food banks and food pantries. It usually does this after natural disasters, when the goal is to serve as many people as quickly as possible. The measure seems doubly important during a disaster caused not by a hurricane but by an infectious disease, when trading pens and paperwork back and forth is risky.

But USDA officials have dragged their feet on waiving such requirements.

Second, Congress needs to pass “phase four” coronavirus relief legislation that increases the maximum value of food-stamp benefits, as it did in response to the Great Recession. (The Families First Coronavirus Response Act allowed states to give more households the maximum benefit but did not raise the ceiling for benefits.)

Every single food bank, food pantry and anti-poverty organization I’ve spoken with pleaded for this. Not because more generous food-stamp assistance would put more money into their coffers. It won’t. But it would put more funds into the hands of low-income Americans, enabling them to purchase more groceries through commercial retailers. This would reduce some of the burden on food pantries and, moreover, serve as effective fiscal stimulus.

The hours-long lines at food pantries around the country are an early indicator of the hunger to come. Better to get ahead of the problem now.

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