Monica Sharma | @mscli_cks
Steve Ericson, the executive director of Feeding Illinois, said he’s never seen any disaster that comes close to having the same devastating impact COVID-19 has had on the communities he serves.
Ericson has been involved in food banking for almost 30 years, getting his start around the time of the Great Flood of 1993 which devastated communities along the Mississippi River valley “from Canada to the Gulf” and he said even that crisis didn’t come close to impact of the pandemic.
“We’ve never seen anything like this, and, you know, it basically shut down supply chains, shut down, obviously, all businesses everywhere short term,” Ericson said.
At the beginning of the pandemic calls for services, like assistance applying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, and requests for food skyrocketed.
“Initially, we were seeing 500% increases,” Ericson said. “It was so off the charts, we didn’t, I’m not sure we were even capturing them all because it was just phone message after phone message.”
The demand was driven primarily by people who had never previously needed any kind of emergency food service and didn’t have any idea of how to navigate the system, Ericson said.
The calls have since plateaued and come back down but demand at every food bank remains high.
The St. Louis Area Food Bank, which also services southwestern Illinois, distributed nearly 35 million meals from the middle of March to the end of December in 2019 according to Advocacy Manager Teresa Schryver .
In 2020 that number rose to over 48 million meals, a 38.6% increase.
Greater Chicago Food Depository wasn’t able to provide figures for the 2020 calendar year, but in their fiscal year, which ran from July of 2019 to June of 2020 they distributed 77.5 million meals, a 24 percent increase compared to the previous fiscal year according to Associate Director of Communications Greg Trotter.
The Central Illinois Food Bank, based in Springfield, distributed over 8 million meals in 2019, and increased distribution to nearly 10 million meals in 2020, a 22% increase according to Executive Director Pam Molitoris.
Tri-state food bank, which is based in Indiana and services 16 southeastern Illinois counties, saw a 6% increase in meals distributed in its Illinois counties from 2019 to 2020, according to Executive Director Glenn Roberts.
“Like many other food banks, I’m sure, we saw a dramatic increase in need when the pandemic hit, and we’re continuing to serve a higher than normal level of people, considerably higher,” Trotter said.
The increases in food bank distribution are monumental, but they don’t capture the full distribution effort or demand for food around the state because the food banks only track what comes through their system.
Programs like the Farmers to Families food boxes, and food drives that don’t involve the food bank can go largely unaccounted for in food distribution data though they provided tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of pounds of food throughout the state Ericson said.
“A lot of those distributions are totally off our radar,” Ericson said.
The silver lining of the pandemic is the new relationships which the food banks, pantries, and volunteers have developed to cope with the massive increase in food insecurity Trotter said.
“People and organizations have come together in ways that just weren’t happening,” Trotter said. “Organizations that are, like, entrenched in the neighborhood. They are deeply respected and trusted, they know the families that are coming in the doors.”
One example Trotter gave was a pantry in the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago at Chosen Tabernacle Ministries which was on the verge of closing down when a team from the University of Chicago stepped up to assist with food distribution.
Communities in southern Illinois also faced volunteer crises when older members couldn’t make themselves available due to the health risk posed by COVID-19.
Megan Austin, director of the Murphysboro Food Pantry, said in a November interview that the pantry had been operating through the pandemic with basically half the volunteers it would normally have, or less, because older members were at risk.
Kendra Mitchell, the serve director at Little Chapel Church in Harrisburg, Illinois said in a February interview that the church had an influx of new, often younger, volunteers many of whom weren’t even church goers that filled in potential gaps and they never ran short on people as a result.
“Those guys are heroes in my opinion,” Ericson said.
Staff reporter Jason Flynn can be reached at email@example.com, by phone at 872-222-7821 or on Twitter at @dejasonflynn. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.