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As the Washington region continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, many people are struggling with a new reality that includes financial hardship and food insecurity.
In fact, area food banks report that they have seen anywhere from 30% to 300% increase in the demand for their services — with some local food pantries reporting an increase of 500% in the number of people seeking them out for food items. And this surge in demand is unfolding while donations to area food banks are down significantly.
Radha Muthiah joins Kojo to share how the Capital Area Food Bank is dealing with these new challenges.
Produced by Monna Kashfi
- Radha Muthiah President and CEO, Capital Area Food Bank; @Radha_Muthiah
KOJO NNAMDIBefore we go, while we're talking about cooking and eating during this pandemic, it's important to remember that many people in our communities are struggling to put food on the table for their families. Day-to-day life is filled with a great deal of uncertainty for many people right now. In fact, area food banks report that they have seen anywhere from 30 to 300 percent increase in demand for their services over the past month. Joining me now is Radha Muthiah, the president and CEO of Capital Area Food Bank. Radha, thank you for joining us.
RADHA MUTHIAHThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIWhat kind of demand are you seeing at Capital Area Food Bank, and how much higher is it than usual?
MUTHIAHOur demand has really skyrocketed, and we're seeing this in so many different ways. You know, you mentioned earlier a statistic of a 300 to 400 percent increase. This comes to us from partners of ours. There are about 450 partners in our network, and several are telling us that they are just seeing three to four times the number of people who are coming to them for food. We're also seeing this in terms of people who call in to our phone lines. We have something called a Hunger Lifeline, and that has seen tremendous increase, you know, 300 percent-plus.
MUTHIAHBoth individuals, you know, who have been traditionally clients of the food bank and have been food insecure for some time, but increasingly more and more individuals who have become nearly unemployed and are just trying to determine where they can get their food, how much they can get, you know, and whether they need to bring any forms of ID or anything like that to be able to get it. So, huge increases across our area in the last seven to eight weeks.
NNAMDIRadha, what kind of impact has the pandemic had on your food donations?
MUTHIAHSo, typically, we get about 60 percent of our food supply donated to us from retailers. So, Giant, Safeway, Amazon, you know, you name your favorite retailer, hopefully they all donate to us at some level. But we've seen a 75 percent decline in terms of food donations from these retailers.
MUTHIAHAgain, many of you know, we've been going to the store, especially early in the pandemic, and, you know, there just wasn't anything on the shelves. And so when there isn't anything on the shelves, there's obviously nothing or very little that comes to us as a food bank, into our network. So, that's been the biggest and dramatic decline, in terms of food donations. And as a result we're just having to purchase hundreds of truckloads of food to be able to just keep our inventory level, let alone increase it to be able to take into account the newly unemployed in our area.
NNAMDIMany stores and websites are dealing with delayed shipping times. Are you able to get the food that you are purchasing, the food you're buying, in a timely manner?
MUTHIAHThat's a really interesting question, Kojo. You know, in the past we would decide what we needed to purchase. We'd purchase it, and it would arrive at our warehouse within eight to 10 business days. Today when we determine what needs to be purchased, you know, most of these items are only coming in six to eight weeks from now.
MUTHIAHSo, we are now purchasing for food that we want to have in our warehouse in July, and some cases, even into August. So, this lead time has increased dramatically and we're having to think two to four months ahead of time and forecast what that food demand and need is likely to be in order for us to purchase that food today.
NNAMDIHave you seen any new sources of donations, or have you had to find other ways to fill the gap?
MUTHIAHYou know, our community is so generous, and so we've been thankful that people, as they think about their own food needs, are spending the time to think about what others might need who are less fortunate. And so we're grateful to those who've donated. But this is a long-term scenario. This is definitely a marathon.
MUTHIAHAnd with the growing numbers of unemployed individuals, we are likely to have a significant need, you know, through the next year. And so we do encourage those who have donated to please think about donating on a regular basis as we go through the year. And those who haven't yet, thinking that, you know, others may have taken care of the need in our community, please do step up, because this is something that is going to stay with us in terms of this increased need for six to 12 months from now.
NNAMDIRadha, how has the pandemic and stay-at-home orders affected your workforce? And can volunteers still help out at your facilities?
MUTHIAHYou know, we're so fortunate to have a terrific team, all of them are working in overdrive right now, particularly our operation staff. The folks who are in the warehouse who, you know, stage the product, receive the product, pack things and deliver it. And they've been coming in and getting the job done, basically, day in and day out.
MUTHIAHWe do have a fewer number of volunteers just out of necessity and maintaining the social distance that we need to. But we've been so amazed with the 1,500 volunteers that we've seen these last couple of months, many who've come back, you know, over and over again. So, please do check our website. We want to keep our volunteers safe. We absolutely still need volunteers, and we encourage you, as you see -- as you're comfortable, to come out and help, whether it's in the warehouse, or increasingly as we're bagging produce in the summer months now, and as we are distributing food out in the community, as well.
NNAMDIRadha Muthiah is the president and CEO of Capital Area Food Bank. Thank you so much for joining us. Stay safe and good luck, Radha.
NNAMDIOur segment on cooking during the pandemic was produced by Cydney Grannan, and our conversation about dating at a distance was produced by Kayla Hewitt. Coming up tomorrow, John M. Barry, author of "The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History," will join us to talk about what lessons we can learn from the past. Plus, an in-depth look about how the contagion spread in Washington in the early 20th century, and how society moved forward when it finally subsided. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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