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9 Ways to Help People Facing Hunger in Your Community

Now is a crucial time to support your neighbors in need.
Woman giving man food at drivethru food pantry
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The holiday season is traditionally a time when we think more about helping those in need. This year the need is particularly grave—and the likelihood that your own neighbors are struggling to put enough food on the table is extraordinarily high. The reality of the hunger crisis in this country right now is that there are probably people in your social circle or community who are struggling to get enough to eat, Colleen Barton Sutton, communications director of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), tells SELF. “Even before COVID-19, there were millions of people across the country that were having trouble putting food on the table, and when COVID hit it only deepened that crisis,” Sutton says.

According to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) using the most recent Census Bureau survey data (collected from October 28 to November 9), almost 26 million, or 12%, of all adults in the U.S. said their households sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the previous week. People with low incomes, children, and communities of color are disproportionately experiencing food insecurity right now, Sutton says. Black and Latinx folks are being hit about twice as hard as white people: 22% of Black adults and 19% of Latinx adults report their household not having enough to eat (compared to 9% of white adults). And 7 million to 11 million children live in households that couldn’t afford to feed them enough in the previous week, according to CBPP estimates.

Meanwhile, millions of families are teetering on the edge of food insecurity: Just 44% of households with children are “very confident” they can afford the food they need in the next four weeks. And with the looming threat of more shutdowns, various forms of government assistance (rent and evictions moratoriums, enhanced unemployment benefits) exhausted or set to expire, remote learning making it harder for children to access free meals normally distributed through schools, and no second stimulus check or comprehensive relief package guaranteed, rates of food insecurity are only expected to rise, Sutton says.

The pandemic’s devastating effects on the economy have resulted in a severe and sustained level of need in the charitable food system, Katie Fitzgerald, executive vice president and COO of Feeding America, the largest charitable hunger relief organization in the U.S., tells SELF. Feeding America food banks and pantries have seen an average 60% increase in the number of people seeking charitable food assistance, Fitzgerald says. (About 40% of them say it’s their first time asking for food assistance, she adds.) On the supply side, increased consumer demand and strained supply chains mean food donations from retailers are down, Fitzgerald says.

All of this means that if you are fortunate enough to be in a place to help out folks in need right now, your support is more important than ever. We spoke to the experts about some of the most effective ways to help relieve hunger by giving your time, your money, or your voice. “Everyone can be part of the solution,” Sutton says.

1. Give money to your local food bank.

Food banks function as giant storehouses for large volumes of food donated or purchased in bulk, which they then distribute among food pantries—the smaller community operations in charge of actually getting the food into the hands of the people who need it. The largest network is Feeding America, comprised of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries. There may also be some smaller independent organizations near you, often run by religious organizations or houses of worship.

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Generally speaking, “Giving financially is the most efficient way to help, because food banks have purchasing power beyond what you or I have,” Fitzgerald says. Food banks can stretch a dollar much further because they can secure huge quantities of food at reduced prices, Fitzgerald explains, as well as buy exactly what’s needed. Plus, food banks can buy perishable goods that might otherwise go to waste, like farmers’ surplus produce, in the most efficient manner—so they can provide a greater variety of fresh foods to people and cut back on food waste.

Monetary donations also make things more efficient logistically—eliminating the possibility of not having space for a large, unanticipated influx of goods, as well as the time required to sort and inspect donated food—which is especially vital right now, given there may be limited staff and volunteers.

Take action: Search for the closest food bank in the Feeding America network here. You can also look on Charity Navigator, inquire with local religious institutions, or Google for a food bank near you. Here are some helpful tips for making sure your charitable giving has an impact.

2. Donate food to your local food pantry.

While financial contributions are most effective, “If what people can give is food, then give that food. Because that is always appreciated,” Fitzgerald says. Think shelf-stable dried and canned goods—pantry staples like beans, rice, pasta, soup, peanut butter, cereal—that you buy at the store or have sitting in your cupboards (just check the expiration date). “Our advice would be to give what you would want to eat,” Fitzgerald adds. Since food banks are generally set up to receive large-scale donations, you’ll likely want to bring the goods to a food pantry near you.

Take action: Call your local food pantry (or check out its website) for information on what, where, and when to donate.

3. Hold a virtual food drive.

When you hear “food drive,” you probably think of the traditional cardboard collection boxes. But today many food banks actually prefer what’s called a virtual food drive, where the drive organizer collects monetary donations online. Not only do monetary donations provide the most efficient form of support, but online fundraisers are also safer and easier during the pandemic. You can raise money from your own family, friends, and social media connections, or organize a drive on behalf of your workplace, school, or community organization.

Take action: Contact your local food bank to ask about getting started or host a drive for Feeding America.

4. Volunteer with a local food bank.

Food banks largely rely on volunteers to operate; 51% do so entirely, according to Feeding America. The pandemic has created a staffing shortage because volunteers are typically older and more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 complications, and about 60% of Feeding America food banks are currently in need of volunteer support, Fitzgerald says. The organization is trying to appeal to individuals who are not at an increased risk for severe COVID-19 complications (like young people without underlying conditions) and feel comfortable with taking on some additional risk.

Feeding America has worked hard to create a safe environment for volunteers, Fitzergald says—implementing safety protocols (like PPE) and innovative means of food distribution that minimize the risk of transmission for everyone. For instance, you might be able to help out at no-contact distribution sites like mobile pantries and drive-thru food pantries. There is also the usual food sorting, shelf-stocking, and packing boxes of food. “Every food bank will have different programs and volunteer opportunities for you,” Fitzgerald says. (Of course, always stay home if you do not feel well, and follow all the safety guidelines set forth by the food bank and public health groups like the CDC.)

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Take action: Get in touch with your local food bank here.

5. Donate to the Feeding America COVID-19 Response Fund.

The pandemic has imposed unprecedented costs on food banks and pantries. “We’re having to provide a great deal of support to help food banks purchase additional food and purchase protective safety equipment to make sure they can keep their staff and volunteers safe,” Fitzgerald says. Then there are the logistical costs, like transportation and equipment, associated with having to move on average 50% more food a week than they were pre-pandemic, Fitzgerald says. In March, Feeding America set up a fund dedicated to helping their network of food banks cover these costs.

Take action: Donate to the Feeding America COVID-19 Response Fund here.

6. Write or call your congressperson asking them to support boosting SNAP.

The work of the charitable sector can’t match the scale of what a strong federal investment in the country’s largest food program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), could do, Ellen Teller, director of government affairs for FRAC, tells SELF. For every one meal provided by food banks, SNAP provides nine. With a greater need for SNAP and benefits temporarily increased during the pandemic, FRAC’s anti-hunger legislation is a boost and extension to current SNAP benefits. “Solutions exist—the only thing getting in the way is political will,” Sutton explains. “Every day that Congress fails to pass a relief bill, more and more people are at risk of not being able to put food on the table.”

Voice your support for SNAP with a letter (or call) to your congressperson. The more you can personalize your message, the more impactful it will be, Teller says. The goal is to put a face to food insecurity among the population your congressperson serves, so Teller always advises sharing a personal story or an anecdote you heard from a neighbor or relative if possible (no need to mention actual names, though). “That really stays with them,” she says.

Take action: If you don’t know who your representatives are, find them here, along with sites and phone numbers for many members. (If not, you can Google their site and find contact info there.)

7. Send a letter to the editor to your local newspaper.

Congresspeople read the newspapers in their home states and districts to keep up on what their constituents care about, so getting a letter to the editor or op-ed published in a local paper is “one of the most effective ways of getting their attention,” Teller explains.

Write a short letter spotlighting the problem of folks facing hunger in your area and how a boost to SNAP could help. Similar to a direct letter to your congressperson, stories about real people are best, Teller says.

Take action: Visit your local paper’s website to find out how to make a submission. (If you’re not sure what your local paper is, search the United States Newspaper Listing.)

8. Make some noise on social media.

Use a couple of the minutes you spend on social media this week to demand support for SNAP from your legislators. Tweet at them using #BoostSNAPNow and get your family and friends to do the same. “Because they do listen, they do pay attention to what their constituents are saying,” Sutton says.

Take action: This Feeding America tool will automatically tweet out a custom graphic at your local representative’s Twitter handle—all you have to do is enter your address and a message.

9. Volunteer With Meals on Wheels.

The well-known program that delivers meals (and a safely distanced reprieve from social isolation) to seniors experiencing hunger has experienced a tremendous surge in demand since the beginning of the pandemic. Meals on Wheels programs have been serving on average 77% more meals and 47% more seniors than on March 1, according to the organization.

Many local Meals on Wheels programs are in dire need of more helping hands during the pandemic. However, others aren’t currently taking on new volunteers. While they’re asking for patience from applicants, keep in mind that you can also donate to the Meals on Wheels COVID-19 Response Fund at any time.

Take action: Learn more about what volunteering for Meals on Wheels is like here and sign up here.

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