Survey Analysis: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on U.S. Hunger Relief Organizations (August-November 2020)
Published: March 2022
Authors: Gizem Templeton, Alison Cohen, Deborah Hill
This study is a detailed and nuanced story about COVID-19’s impact on food insecurity in the U.S. through the experiences of private, charitable non-profit organizations. These Hunger Relief Organizations (HROs), such as Food Banks, food pantries, and anti-hunger Advocacy Organizations, were on the front lines of food assistance, ensuring people who were in need got access to food during the most worrisome months of the pandemic. This research sampled the experiences and activities of these HROs across the U.S. from June through September 2020.
Goals of the research inquiry
- To document the actions, needs, barriers, and successes of Hunger Relief Organizations (HROs) providing access to food during a pandemic.
- To assess potential long-term shifts in HRO policies, practices, programs, and purpose as a result of providing food access during a pandemic.
- To identify recommendations for systemic change in the emergency food system highlighted by this crisis and in local/state/federal policy to support those changes long-term.
Overview of survey respondents
- Hunger Relief Organizations self-selected into three categories, which we labeled and defined as follows:
- Frontline Organizations: Community-based organizations providing food directly to people in need (i.e. food pantries, soup kitchens and food shelves)
- Advocacy Organizations: Anti-hunger organizations that do not provide direct services but whose mission includes ending or lessening food insecurity
- Food Banks: Organizations with storage facilities and trucks that procure and distribute food to Frontline Organizations and/or provide direct food access to people in need from their own location.
- Most HRO respondents serve one or more counties, but Advocacy Organizations report a nationwide service focus.
- The majority of HRO respondents have been in operation for more than 20 years.
- There are marked differences in the operational budgets for HRO respondents – with Food Banks as the financially largest operations.
Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on HRO clients
- During the survey period, 79% of HROs saw an increase in demand for their existing services.
- More than 85% of Food Banks and Frontline Organizations reported serving clients needing access to food assistance for the first time.
- 77% of Frontline Organizations and 85% of Food Banks indicated that they served a larger number of unemployed clients.
HROs adapted operations to meet client needs
- 98% of HROs responding to the survey stayed open, but had to make shifts in operations to adapt, such as safety precautions, pausing in-person programming, and creating new programs to meet the increased demand.
- 63% of Frontline Organizations started curbside pickup, and 55% started delivery or drop off.
- Between 25-35% of HROs reported that volunteers and staff contracted the COVID-19 virus.
- The majority of HROs don’t plan to continue pandemic-necessitated operational shifts, especially those that reduce client choice.
Keys to success for HROs
- 83% of HROs cited pre-established relationships with funders, 75% of HROs selected increased local and regional coordination, and 72% of HROs identified short-term increases in philanthropic funding as keys to success.
- Majority of HROs experienced an increase in funding from different sources, the top 2 being philanthropic and individual donations. Over 80% of Food Banks experienced increase in philanthropic and individual funding, over 60% of Food Banks had increased state, federal, and corporate funding.
- Among the different types of HROs, Food Banks reported receiving increased funding at higher levels than other types of HROs. Many HROs commented on concerns for sustainability and equity in future funding mechanisms.
- More than 70% of HROs cited communication and operational coordination between HROs and their funders, farmers and growers, and other stakeholders as a key to success.
Biggest challenges for HROs
- Overall the biggest challenge for HROs was loss of volunteer base due to COVID risk. Over 80% of Food Banks and over 60% of other HROs lost volunteers initially. At the same time, 75% of Food Banks were able to hire more staff to compensate for this sudden reduction in workforce.
- Around 60% of HROs rated a lack of refrigeration space for perishable food and space for shelf-stable food as critical limitations and barriers. In addition, over 60% of Food Banks and Frontline Organizations reported concerns about lack of transportation for clients to receive food.
- HROs struggled with the lack of coordination, consistency, and predictability of the government’s response to the pandemic.
HROs identified weaknesses in the emergency food system, and overall food system
- 79% of HROs identified dependence on volunteer staff and donations and “just in time” food supply (69%) as weaknesses.
- 65% of HROs cite lack of government support and solutions to address the root causes of hunger as problematic.
- More than 75% of HROs see inequitable access to healthy, fresh food as a food system weakness and more than 59% see an overabundance of processed foods as a problem.
- More than 62% of HROs see the cost of food as a significant problem, as well as the precarity of food supply chains (more than 66%).
- Insufficient government support for small-scale farmers was identified as a weakness of the food system by 77% of the Food Banks and 53% of Frontline Organizations and Advocacy Organizations.
- 72% of HROs identified unpredictable food supply chains and increased reliance on shelf stable items as opposed to fresh foods (46%) as weaknesses in responding to emergencies.
HROs suggest changes to strengthen emergency food system effectiveness
- HROs call for increased, sustainable, and more flexible funding.
- HROs see a need for logistical, structural and technological support.
- HROs need support for their programmatic needs such as media, outreach, and volunteer support.
- HROs call for stronger social safety net as key to addressing food insecurity
- HROs advocate for local, statewide or federal officials to increase funding for Pandemic-EBT, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), unemployment, and universal free school meals.
- HROs advocate for increased support for programs that intersect with issues of food security such as affordable housing, mental health, childcare and virtual school programs.
- HROs advocate for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) changes such as more flexibility, broader access, fewer eligibility requirements, and a simpler application.
HROs recognize the need for more focus on local food systems and small-scale agriculture
- HROs call for nation-wide policy changes to support small-scale agriculture and local food systems as an emerging solution to the precarity of existing food supply chains.
- HROs plan to make programmatic changes to support local and small-scale food systems.
- HROs recognize structural racism and intend to address racial inequities in various ways
- 75% of Food Banks, 69% of Advocacy Organizations, and 53% of Frontline Organizations recognize structural racism as a weakness of the food system.
- HROs intend to address racial inequities by providing equitable food access to their clients, making internal policy and programmatic changes through a racial equity lens, and advocating for broader policy changes to rectify racial inequities in society.
HROs call for more root-cause work to end hunger
- Around 65% of HROs cite lack of government support and solutions to address the root causes of hunger as problematic.
- More than 60% of HROs identify low wage jobs in the food sector, and lack of valuing essential food system workers as significant problems.
- 7 to 19% of HROs plan to spend more time on fair wage advocacy campaigns compared to their pre-pandemic allocated time.
- HROs call for better working conditions and benefits for all workers along the food chain
- • 60 to 90% of HROs plan to continue or increase their advocacy efforts after the pandemic.
HRO metrics of success
- Frontline Organizations primarily measure impact through the number of people receiving food services (83%), the pounds of food provided (66%), and the number of meals provided (46%).
- Food Banks also primarily measure impact through the pounds of food provided (88%), the number of people receiving food services (73%), and the number of meals provided (69%).
- Advocacy Organizations (55%) primarily focus on changes in the government policies and practices as a measure of impact.
- Less than 5% of all HROs responded that they measure success by the number of people no longer needing their services.
- Include client enrollment in social safety-net programs as an operational priority.
- Engage clients in defining and implementing advocacy agendas.
- Launch or join advocacy campaigns for affordable housing, living wages, and accessible healthcare – in addition to the standard advocacy efforts by many HROs to preserve and/or enhance Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
- Start, continue or expand programs that address food insecurity at its root causes.
- Reevaluate measures of success for food insecurity work to focus on progress towards community stability and resilience – not poundage of food distributed and meals served.
- Seek to fund projects that address problems and challenges holistically at their social, political and economic intersections.
- Invest in the learning and networking needs of HROs. Support the building of processes and infrastructure that create opportunities for peer-to-peer learning.
- Continue to build and reinforce relationships with HROs, particularly Black, Indigenous, and People of color (BIPOC)-led and BIPOC-accountable organizations.
- Adapt foundation policies and practices in order to increase investment directly in Frontline Organizations that are embedded in their communities.
- Help communities bridge the gap between chronic food assistance needs and community food systems that are both sustainable and resilient.
- Reevaluate measures of success for food insecurity work to focus on progress towards community economic stability and resilience – not pounds of food distributed and meals served.
- Continue to deepen the SNAP social safety net, and make P-EBT permanent.
- Learn from state feedback and make SNAP waivers permanent to lift more families out of poverty.
- Take steps to identify and understand the different characteristics and needs of communities in crisis vs. communities facing chronic, systemic problems–and adjust social safe net responses accordingly.
- Deepen the transparency of the USDA’s emergency plan and communications protocols so that supporting actors in emergency response can operate with less uncertainty and more efficiency.
- Operationalize client choice of food, especially culturally appropriate food, as a core value in emergency food provision.
- Address the overabundance of processed foods in the food system through food policy changes that prioritize societal health over industry profit, and hold industry responsible for the adverse societal impact of unhealthy foods.
- Preserve small family farms and tribal communities that are producing nutritious food in concert with the local ecology and maintain direct sales to consumers, local restaurants, schools and grocery outlets.
- Adopt a set of values, policies and priorities that amplify investment in local and regional food and farm economies and in the health of our natural resources while recognizing that those preparing the soil, harvesting fruits, and stocking the grocery store shelves are “life-sustaining workers” that deserve good pay and just working conditions.
- Support community scale agroecological production and distribution while centering BIPOC as those most impacted across all sectors of the food system.
The U.S. is witnessing an emergency food system pushed to its limits, exposing the true extent of the root causes of food insecurity. The experiences and sentiments captured in this midyear 2020 study highlight and amplify existing issues around food insecurity in the U.S. At the time of writing this report, the COVID -19 pandemic continues, but national, state and local responses have evolved. Effective vaccines and widespread vaccine distribution are lessening workplace restrictions, increasing people’s ability to commute and travel, and makingit easier for individuals to share communal space. However, the world has not yet reached a post-pandemic state, or a “new normal.” The pandemic arguably creates a crossroads moment for addressing food security in the U.S. The results of this survey, when placed alongside what we all witnessed and experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, spotlight fault lines in the emergency food system and clear opportunities for guaranteeing the health and well-being of people residing in the U.S.