When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, available food assistance doubled — but so did the need – IndyStar

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, available food assistance doubled — but so did the need – IndyStar

Holly V. Hays
| Indianapolis Star

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The results of two surveys conducted by Indy Hunger Network in February and June reveal how significantly the COVID-19 pandemic has affected hunger across Marion County.

The report, published in late October, found that, while nonprofits and federal aid nearly doubled the number of meals being distributed to food-insecure Hoosiers, the need also doubled.

Between February and June, the total number of meals provided by area nonprofits and federal nutrition programs rose from 11,850,916 to 22,587,724.

Still, the proportion of Marion County residents using food assistance rose from 20% in February to 28% in June, representing an additional 77,000 who turned to hunger relief organizations amid the pandemic. The meal gap — the estimated amount of meals required to meet total need — also doubled, from around 380,000 per month in February to around 740,000 in June.

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Kate Howe, executive director of Indy Hunger Network, said to close the meal gap that existed before the pandemic began plus the gap created by the pandemic, hunger relief organizations and federal aid programs would effectively have to quadruple their pre-pandemic output.

“There was already so much need before the pandemic hit that we were not able to adequately respond,” she said, “even with all of the great efforts that were made.”

Who is most affected?

The study, commissioned by the Indy Hunger Network, analyzed the results of two food-assistance surveys, one from before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, to understand the level of additional assistance needed to meet all food need in Marion County. The proportion of Marion County residents in need of food assistance was used to estimate the number of meals missed.

Here are a few key takeaways from the report:

  • Hoosiers of color are disproportionately affected by food insecurity. Around 39% of respondents in each survey indicated they were Black or African American, despite comprising 28% of the county’s overall population.
  • Federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and its program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), provided 85% of those meals. SNAP alone provided 44% of the additional meals.
  • Over 75% of the households describing a food need during the February survey reported winter as the season in which they didn’t have the food they needed, compared to 22-37% in spring, summer and fall.
  • Around a third of the households surveyed in June said at least one member of the household had lost their job or was working fewer hours. Approximately 16% of respondents to the June survey were receiving unemployment.

The rise in the number of meals provided by SNAP can be attributed to provisions made by the federal government to provide each household receiving SNAP benefits to receive their maximum. Over 290,000 Hoosier households received SNAP benefits in October, according to the Family and Social Services Administration, receiving $120,214,753 in aid.

African American Hoosiers experience a 50% higher rate of hunger than the general population, Howe said, and families with children are heavily impacted. So, African American children are more likely to be affected by food insecurity on top of other issues that disproportionately affect Black families, such as poverty and employment and education gaps.

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“Obviously, hunger affects people of all different races and genders and ages,” she said, “but we really want to focus on the people who are the hardest-impacted, the hardest-hit by what’s happening.”

Indy Hunger has received funding from the Indiana Minority Health coalition to conduct another study in early 2021, Howe said, likely in February to take another measure of the meal gap.

Nonprofits respond to need

The results of the study showed the Central Indiana nonprofit sector responded in a significant way to meet the increase in demand. A handful of nonprofits, including Gleaners and Midwest food banks, CICOA, Second Helpings and the Patachou Foundation, provided 1,689,763 more meals in June than in February.

Gleaners saw the single biggest increase over all other nonprofits included in the study, nearly doubling its output, according to data reported by Indy Hunger Network.  

Joe Slater, Gleaners chief operating and financial officer, said before the pandemic made its way to Indiana, a “normal” day for the Gleaners food pantry would serve 300-400 families. By the second week of the pandemic, 700. The next week, 1,000.

At its peak, the pantry served 2,200 families in one day.

“(The demand) got big quick,” he said, “and it’s just kind of stayed there.”

Is the output sustainable? Yes and no, Slater said. Operationally, they know they can make it happen. They’ve got the staffing and the volunteers and the workflow figured out well enough to keep performing at this level.

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The biggest challenge moving forward is going to come on the supply front, Slater said. Gleaners spent the last of the CARES Act funding it was awarded by the city within the last month, and two programs that have been key to meeting the increased demand are set to end by the start of the New Year.

The Farm to Families food box program provided about 500,000 pounds of food each week, he said, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture was also providing food through its trade mitigation program, buying surplus food from farmers and sending it to food banks.

“Where we are really gonna struggle,” Slater said, “is how you fill almost a three-quarters-of-a-million-pound gap in food.”

To continue providing aid at this level, Slater said Gleaners would need around $20 million a year — twice the food bank’s current annual budget.

The food bank has been working for years to build fundraising capacity and gradually increase its output. The goal before the pandemic hit, Slater said, was to reach 100 million pounds of food distributed annually.

Donors should realize that every little bit helps, Slater said. At Gleaners, $1 provides five meals. A $5 donation could provide 25 meals for a family in need.

“You’re helping, basically, take care of somebody for an entire week,” he said, “with that kind of donation.”

To make a donation or to learn more about volunteering, visit

You can reach IndyStar reporter Holly Hays at 317-444-6156 or Follow her on Twitter: @hollyvhays.

Published at Mon, 07 Dec 2020 11:05:00 +0000

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