Locals work to fight growing food insecurity due to COVID-19

Physical isolation complicates access to necessities

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County resident Quentin Merrill, 47, had been working for his entire adult life until the coronavirus lost him his job. Since then, buying food has become more difficult, and he’s using resources like Loaves & Fishes and local food banks more often than usual to get by.

“Who hasn’t? Unless you are financially set at least for now, which I’m not,” Merrill said. “A lot of people I’ve noticed, even people that thought they were financially set, are now using the food banks and the kitchen.”

Merrill is just one of many whose food security status has worsened due to COVID-19. From April 12 through 18, Loaves & Fishes served over 1,000 meals, a significant spike from usual levels. And last month, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier had distributed double the amount of food compared to March of 2019 and saw a 65% increase in demand.

“Then, our agencies reported over 50% increase in the number of people coming to them for help, many of them first-timers,” said Natasha Thompson, CEO of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier.

With food insecurity continuing to grow in the county, Tompkins Weekly spoke with locals on how we got here and what’s being done to help.

Coronavirus effects

All sources interviewed for this story agreed that food insecurity has always been a problem in the county, but COVID-19 and its effects have magnified it and brought it to the forefront of many people’s minds.

“Families who have never been economically vulnerable are all of a sudden finding themselves without a job and dwindling resources and not necessarily tapped into existing social services,” said county Legislator Anna Kelles.

Sources cited several reasons food insecurity has increased in recent months, including business shutdowns, job loss, decreased public transit options and physical isolation mandates.

“There are just new people coming into the system because they’ve lost their jobs and they’re trying to figure out what can they do if they don’t have any income?” said Monika Roth, an agricultural specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCE-Tompkins).

Challenges

While food insecurity is a growing problem, addressing the need has become much more difficult in recent months for many of the same reasons.

“For those who are working in the food system, everyone’s working overtime and then some,” said Baz Perry, equitable food systems coordinator at CCE-Tompkins. “It’s like everyone has four jobs now because they have to do everything they did before, but then they also have to look at health and safety, they also have to have new distribution chains, and they also have to look toward equitable ways of distributing our food.”

Among the biggest challenges sources referenced in trying to address food insecurity right now is a lack of volunteers. Physical distancing and health mandates have caused many to stay home, and especially for organizations whose volunteers are older, this can cause a significant hit to resources.

“So many of the core group of our regular volunteers were in the demographic of being in their 70s and 80s,” said Christina Culver, executive director of Loaves & Fishes. “Quickly, we lost most of our primary volunteers.”

Loaves & Fishes volunteer Maureen Shallish saw this need and has stepped up her hours at the kitchen to help.

“My nursing background has helped us in keeping to that plan of social distancing and making sure that we do what we do to keep our kitchen safe so that we never have to worry about closing it down because of infection or contaminations and not be able to serve the public,” Shallish said.

Another large challenge is distribution. Roth said that vulnerable populations like senior citizens or those living in rural communities can be particularly difficult to reach during a time of physical isolation, as many rural food pantries are only open once or twice a month.

“During that other time, where does the food come from if you don’t have good stuff, retail outlets, and you can’t travel there because you don’t have transportation?” Roth said.

Perry added that the current food system involves a lot of steps from farm to table, and that process is compromised by the coronavirus.

“We have a very complicated system whereby food is grown and then passes through many hands before it lands on someone’s kitchen table,” she said. “We either need to make sure that those hands in between have the resources they need, like protective equipment, and are paid well enough to take their time to be safe, or we need to reduce the number of hands in between and have a very strong, direct sales system between farmers and the consumers.”

And even when the resources are available, getting the word out to residents can be difficult.

“The biggest thing is just people not knowing where to go for help,” said Jay Franklin, Tompkins County assessment director. “We have a great support system with our community partners, … but the problem now is, you can’t just throw people at this response because you want people to stay away from each other, maintain their distancing.”

The last challenge many referenced was financial uncertainty should COVID-19 continue to affect food systems the way it has in recent months.

“Luckily, right now, 90% of the pantries and meal programs that we work with are still open; they’re still operating,” Thompson said. “But there’s a concern, how long are they going to be able to continue doing this? That’s something that we’re worried about as well.”

Janet Cotraccia, chief impact officer at the Community Foundation of Tompkins County, shared that sentiment, adding that the coronavirus could also have a detrimental effect on the smaller nonprofits within this system.

“I’m nervous about … how disproportionately hurt some of these small nonprofits are going to be,” Cotraccia said. “They often are addressing unique vulnerable populations in our community. And we need those small grassroots organizations.”

Why this matters

Sources interviewed for this story repeatedly addressed the importance of food access during the COVID-19 crisis. Most basically, proper nutrition ensures healthy immune systems to better fight COVID-19.

“If you don’t have sufficient food access, you have a compromised immune system, fundamentally speaking,” Kelles said. “If you don’t have food, you’re going to take risks that will put you at risk and everyone else at risk.”

Some, like TST BOCES District Superintendent Jeffrey Matteson, called food access a necessity and right that must be upheld despite the crisis.

“The basic human needs are the most immediate needs to meet right now,” Matteson said. “We want to reopen our economy eventually and we want to get back to doing everything. We need people to be safe. And obviously, being well nourished and getting exercise are very important to basic human safety along with the current health issue.”

Families who depended on schools to provide their children with one to two meals per day now have to find new means of getting the food they need, said Beth Krause, director of the Child Nutrition Program at Ithaca City School District.

“These students are used to eating breakfast and lunch daily,” Krause said. “Now, we’re feeding them all in their home through delivery to their homes. And actually, it’s not only supporting their nutritional needs; it’s supporting mental health needs. … They see the school bus or they wait for the school bus or they can wave to the school bus. So, they’re very excited to see the school bus and some sort of normalcy.”

George Ferrari, CEO of the Community Foundation of Tompkins County, agreed, adding that food can help connect people who feel isolated right now.

“Food is a way we can express our concern and nurture each other and be creative and social within current social distancing issues,” Ferrari said. “It’s just really concrete, tangible, visceral.”

Several sources also voiced that addressing the current food crisis is crucial for a successful recovery after COVID-19 concerns fade.

“If we don’t take care of addressing food concerns, ensuring that one has access to healthy food and safe food, then we’re going to have a real challenge if we have a food crisis on top of a health crisis,” said Rachel Bezner Kerr, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Global Development.

Resources

While sources expressed a need for increased supply, coordination and financial assistance, most emphasized that there are already many resources in place to fight food insecurity, and collaboration between them has only increased with the COVID-19 crisis.

“There are agencies who’ve been working in this for a long time who are doing herculean efforts, and they need to be lauded in this for what they’re doing,” Kelles said.

Kelles and Bezner Kerr are organizers of Tompkins County COVID-19 Food Task Force, a group of over 65 local organizations working to provide a coordinated response to COVID-19.

“A lot of what we’ve been doing is just raising awareness of what information is already in place and also connecting different groups that weren’t aware of what resources there are in place, and holding these convening meetings to share resources and information,” Bezner Kerr said.

The Food Bank of the Southern Tier, Loaves & Fishes, the Salvation Army and others help provide free meals and food to those in need.

CCE-Tompkins’ Healthy Food for All program, directed by Liz Karabinakis, has distributed nearly 500 boxes of fresh, locally grown produce to food-insecure households throughout the county during the pandemic.

“It’s not just food security but nutritional security that is critical for strengthening immunity to prevent illness and to help people recover if they get sick,” Karabinakis said. “Through a partnership with school districts, we’ve helped to send harvest boxes home to families on school busses in rural areas including Newfield, Dryden and Trumansburg, and we’re raising funds to expand to also provide produce to families struggling to access food in Lansing and Groton districts.”

Resources like Foodnet Meals on WheelsWay2GoUnited Way and Gadabout help with the transportation of food supplies to vulnerable populations. Way2Go Team Leader Dawn Montanye said effective transportation services are critical to reaching those in quarantine or those with limited transportation access, and she’s glad so many organizations are working together in this effort.

“There is so much that is happening,” Montanye said. “What’s amazing about this is that groups that haven’t typically worked together are now working together and talking. So, it’s amazing. And there’s been so much engagement and willingness to step forward.”

Gail Belokur, senior director of administration at United Way of Tompkins County, said United Way’s website has an emergency food delivery request form, which has so far received over 60 requests for emergency food packages, averaging 20 requests per week.

Communications and Student Engagement Manager Brandi Remington said United Way has worked with Gadabout and the Food Bank of the Southern Tier to deliver 148 packages of food to local households.

Other organizations are helping to raise funds for these and other efforts. The Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund, for example, has successfully raised over $300,000 since its start on March 14, Cotraccia said.

Sources encourage residents to call 211 for help finding information and resources regarding food insecurity and other challenges related to COVID-19. Many also referenced the Google Doc Tompkins County Mutual Aid as a great source of resource listings for those in need.

Conclusion

While food insecurity is a growing problem due to the coronavirus, local organizations are working diligently to address the needs of the community. Sources interviewed for this story said residents can help by volunteering their time where available and donating to the organizations involved in this effort.

“Our messaging right now to a broad range of donors in the community is please give to the organizations that you have always given to, and give unrestricted funding to those organizations to help them put it where it’s needed most right now,” Cotraccia said.

Sources agreed that the coordinated and collaborative response to this need is a good sign for the future of the Tompkins County community.

“I’ve always thought we had a great community, and that’s what makes Tompkins County what it is,” Franklin said. “But after diving down deeper into this, I know we have a great community and we have a great community response. They’re out there risking their own well-being to make sure that people are being fed and being taken care of.”

Belokur shared that sentiment, adding that residents are also helping each other through these uncertain times, which gives her hope for the future.

“I’m struck again at what a caring and engaged community we live in,” she said. “And it’s been remarkable to see neighbors helping neighbors and all sorts of different segments of the community coming together and intersecting in new ways. I feel an immense amount of gratitude for everything everyone’s doing during a collectively difficult time.”

 
 

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