Innovation and adaptation, along with a strong mission and a God-given capacity to fulfill that mission, are needed to weather a national pandemic. Midwest Food Bank Peoria and its community partners are passionate about getting food into households and onto the plates of those who are hungry.
With COVID-related shutdowns, more families are experiencing food insecurity. Those in hard-hit industries are unable to feed their families due to strained finances, transportation and inadequate food access. The loss of jobs, underemployment, stagnant wages and rising costs of living have forced some families to reach out to food pantries or food assistance programs.
Obstacles to Food Security
Before COVID-19 hit the Tri-County Peoria area, 36,500 people didn’t know where their next meal would come from. Since COVID-19, that number has increased to 54,100. This 48% increase in local families that are food-insecure is just over U.S. estimates of a 46% increase in food insecurity in 2020.
The emergency food supply chain has also been affected by COVID-19. Food manufacturers, distributors, suppliers and grocery stores experienced shutdowns, while farmers and meat producers couldn’t get their excess products to food banks. As a result, the food donations that fill Midwest Food Bank’s warehouse shelves dwindled. Increased consumer demand and transportation issues also decreased the amount of food that normally flows into the emergency food system. With grocery store shelves empty due to consumer panic or imposed purchasing limits, grocers as well as customers could not donate to food banks either.
By May of 2020, Midwest Food Bank recorded a 50% decline in food inventory. Consequently, MFB food purchases increased by 724 percent to keep food flowing to the 330 feeding programs and food pantries served across central Illinois, eastern Iowa and Harlan, Kentucky. Maintaining the MFB volunteer force has been equally challenging, as the size of volunteer groups has been limited to allow for social distancing. MFB Peoria has seen a 24% drop in the number of volunteers over the past four months.
In the face of these obstacles, Midwest Food Bank Peoria has distributed 30% more food to partnering food pantries and feeding programs in 2020. This was despite the five percent of MFB-supported pantries that closed their doors temporarily during COVID-19. MFB volunteers assembled more than 75,000 family food boxes (70 semi loads!) that were trucked to cities across the U.S. through a partnership with The Salvation Army.
A Collaborative Effort
Currently, the emergency food supply has recovered to normal numbers as generous central Illinois individuals, foundations and corporations have filled the gap. Other sources of help included the Illinois COVID-19 Response Fund and the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program. The latter, along with funding from the Gilmore Foundation, has allowed MFB Peoria to distribute 125% more fresh produce to local food pantries and feeding programs.
Community partnerships between Midwest Food Bank Peoria and local county health departments, U of I Extension offices, and HOI United Way strengthened local collaborative efforts like Healthy Eating Active Living and the Food Pantry Network. These community-focused workgroups quickly responded to the families hit hardest by COVID-19 by delivering meal boxes to shut-ins and coordinating neighborhood mobile food pantries.
Finally, the production and distribution of Midwest Food Bank’s Tender Mercies meals are at an all-time high. This program provides highly nutritious, shelf-stable meals for families of four at a cost of just 20 cents per meal. More than 2.5 million meals have been produced in 2020 (an increase of 450% over 2019).
With 11 locations in the U.S., Africa and Haiti, Midwest Food Bank works to alleviate hunger by gathering and distributing food to not-for-profits and disaster sites—without discrimination and at no cost to the recipients. To learn more or support MFB with dollars or volunteer hours, visit midwestfoodbank.org. PM
Monica Scheuer, RN, MS, RD, LD, is executive director of Midwest Food Bank – Peoria.