Before June, Pamela Mann had never used a food pantry. But Tuesday morning, her 23-year-old grandson drove her to the pantry at Greater Harvest Church of God in Christ in Parkway Village, where she’s been going monthly when she has a ride.
Mann usually hosts a big Thanksgiving meal, but this year, like many people, she’s curbing her holiday plans because of the coronavirus. She is planning dinner for just her two grandchildren who live with her. Still, she plans to cook a turkey, cornbread dressing, homemade gravy, greens, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potato casseroles, one made with nuts and raisins she will get from the pantry.
Her box from the pantry will also include canned goods, fresh produce, cereal and chicken — needed staples that help her get by.
“I never in my life experienced this. I never in my life been this broke,” Mann, 66, said.
For about 30 years she was employed as a tax preparer, until she retired in 2010 after a heart attack. She’s been giving tax advice since then to supplement her Social Security income, but when the pandemic hit, her clients stopped coming to her. By June her savings ran out and her Social Security payments couldn’t cover her living expenses.
So Mann, like an increasing number of people experiencing food insecurity because of the pandemic, turned to her local food pantry.
As Thanksgiving and the winter holidays approach, health experts have been warning Americans to dramatically curtail their large Thanksgiving plans. In Shelby County, as is the case nationally, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to rise. As of Thursday, the county has recorded 623 deaths and more than 44,000 total cases, including 402 new cases.
But across the country, virus worries are compounded by high unemployment and loss of income, especially among low-wage workers, contributing to staggeringly high levels of food insecurity, or people experiencing uncertain access to adequate food.
This year about 19% of Shelby County’s population, or about 181,000 people, will experience food insecurity, according to projections from Feeding America, a nonprofit nationwide network of food banks. That’s up from about 15% in 2018, which means about 40,000 more people are food insecure.
And rates are even higher among children. About 27% of children in the county are food insecure, up from about 19% in 2018.
In Memphis, which is majority Black, the poverty rate was 21.7% overall and 35% for children in 2019, according to the University of Memphis School of Social Work’s 2020 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet.
That data resonates with Cathy Pope, President and CEO at Mid-South Food Bank, which distributes food to around 300 pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and agencies across 31 counties in West Tennessee, North Mississippi and East Arkansas; Shelby is the largest county they serve with the greatest need.
Pope called this year “totally unprecedented.”
Before the pandemic, the food bank was distributing about 1.5 million pounds of food a month. Since March, they’re averaging around 5.4 million pounds a month, though it spiked at 6.5 million pounds of food in May.
That puts a strain on the food pantries, some of which don’t have the capacity to serve the dozens or hundreds of clients a day. As a result, the food bank increased its mobile pantry sites, where it partners with a local site like a church or school and advertises food distribution for a single day ahead of time. The food bank’s website has a weekly list of mobile sites.
“We had been doing 60 mobile pantries a month, on average,” before the pandemic, Pope said. “Now we’re doing about 220. That’s how we’re getting so much food out the door.” Saturdays are particularly busy, when the food bank regularly runs 15 mobile pantries.
And their steady, brick-and-mortar pantries have seen increases too.
“They might have normally served 100 families a month and now they’re serving 300 a month,” Pope said.
Food demand is up, donations from retailers down
As demand rose, access to food became complicated. Gaps and stoppages in supply chains hurt not only regular shoppers, but the food bank as well, which relies heavily on wholesale purchases. Retailers donated fewer goods, said Marcia Wells, the food bank’s director of corporate and community engagement.
That’s noticeable as Thanksgiving approaches. Normally, Wells said, a retailer or wholesaler would donate a large supply of turkeys. This year, however, there was no big donation.
“The only thing we can chalk it up to would be because of the state of the economy and retailers needing to sell their inventory, not donate it,” Wells said.
Instead, the food bank has been relying on individual cash donations, largely through its annual Turkey Drive, since the bank can stretch a dollar at wholesale prices further than an individual at a grocery store, Pope said. The food bank purchased around 5,700 turkeys, aided by about $11,000 in donations raised as of Tuesday evening, which Wells said was about on par with previous years. Last week, agencies started distributing them to clients.
The food bank will not distribute turkeys at its mobile sites, though the pantries always have some form of protein. And although the formal drive will end after Thanksgiving, the organization will still accept monetary donations for turkeys through Christmas.
Not all pantries are distributing turkeys, but most are gearing up for the holidays. At the food pantry at Greater Harvest Church of God in Christ, volunteers pack boxes and bags of food for clients Tuesday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to noon.
Just before closing on Tuesday, the pantry received a six-pallet shipment from the food bank. Along with some of the regular foods, like cereal, peanut butter and pasta sauce, the delivery included holiday foods, like dehydrated potatoes, pecan pieces, dried cherries and macaroni.
The church pantry served 31 households, totaling 64 people, on Tuesday, said Matilda Cushinberry, who used to manage the pantry and now provides pastoral support.
There was retired big rig mechanic Robert Ross, who lives in South Memphis and has been coming to the pantry monthly because he’s “cash-strapped.”
Betty Rogers, 60, stopped by around 9:45 a.m. to pick up food for the eight people in her family, including her disabled son. She’s been afraid to go to her doctor’s appointments because she believes her sister caught the coronavirus at the doctor’s office they shared. Her sister died a few weeks ago.
But Rogers said she feels safe coming to the pantry, where staff perform temperature checks, have plenty of hand sanitizer, and require that masks be worn properly.
Brothers Melvin and John Sparks, 62 and 65, drove together to the pantry, where they have been getting food for over a year. Neither is employed and Melvin has health issues that require him to monitor his blood pressure and oxygen level. Without the pantry, “I wouldn’t be able to eat through the month,” Melvin said.
Helen Stewart and her sister, Andrea Walker, live in the same neighborhood in South Memphis, and they carpooled to the pantry. Walker’s daughter has six children, and the excess food she gets can help feed her daughter’s family too sometimes, she said.
About a half hour before closing, 58-year-old Edna Dockery arrived, greeting everyone with a huge smile. The retired school system employee loves the pantry, calling it a “blessing” filled with “wonderful people.”
The whole time, half a dozen or so volunteers filled boxes, checked in clients, took temperatures, and helped load cars. They’d return Wednesday and Thursday to do it all again.
Providing food, from the ground up
The Landmark Food Pantry, part of the Landmark Training Development Company in Orange Mound, also receives food from Mid-South Food Bank. But the company also runs an urban farm, which grows produce, herbs and spices and flowers. They also have chickens for eggs, bees for honey, tilapia and catfish, and more.
The soil in the neighborhood, which is on the site of a former plantation, is some of the most fertile in the county, said Mike Minnis, who runs the farm and pantry, and the associated youth training programs.
The food grown on the 2-acre farm is both sold at the market and donated to the pantry, which is open from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Monday through Friday to Shelby County residents. To use the pantry, a patron only has to display an ID and fill out a form demonstrating need; workers will help load up their bags with food they choose, and they can return once a week.
Minnis has been operating the pantry for nearly a decade, but this year has been noticeably different.
“Our rolls have almost doubled during the pandemic since March. We’ve had an onslaught of extra clients,” Minnis said outside his pantry Monday morning.
Neither Pope nor Wells at Mid-South Food Bank expressed immediate concern for the organization’s ability to stock or distribute supplies to its agencies. They attribute solvency to donations from the community and regular USDA aid.
They’ve also received temporary, coronavirus-related funding from Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program, in which the federal government purchases food from farmers to redistribute to food banks.
But the USDA program will conclude by the end of the year and TEMA aid will also eventually stop.
“I’m concerned and anxious … I think we’re doing fantastic right now in the way we’ve responded,” Pope said. “But how long are we going to do this?”
With cases spiking, Wells is worried about more people being out of work and doesn’t see the need decreasing anytime soon.
“We’re trying to make Thanksgiving as usual in the best way we can,” she said, “but we realize that nothing is as usual this year. And so we will do our best to make it happy for as many people as we possibly can.”
Hannah Grabenstein is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
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