Economic fallout from the pandemic is expected to rapidly raise the level of hunger in America and the region, undoing the recovery from the Great Recession and potentially rendering millions more families unable to afford food.

According to projections by Feeding America, the leading hunger-relief charity in the United States, the number of Americans who are food insecure — lacking money to buy enough food to live a healthy life — may jump from 37 million (a rate of 11.5%) to 54 million (16.7%) in 2020 alone because of COVID-19.

Rates of food insecurity in Philadelphia are poised to rocket from 16.3% (based on 2018 data, the latest available) to 21.2% this year due to the coronavirus, Feeding America’s analysis showed.

Similarly, the four counties surrounding Philadelphia may see substantial increases in food insecurity, each around five percentage points. In New Jersey, Gloucester, Camden, and Burlington Counties would register similar hikes, the organization reported.

Wiping out gains

Based in Chicago, Feeding America runs 200 large food banks in the country, including Philabundance in this region.

At the peak of the Great Recession in 2009, 50.1 million Americans were experiencing food insecurity, a rate of 16.6%, according to Craig Gundersen, a professor in the department of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois, and an analyst for Feeding America.

Only recently did the number of those who were food insecure drop to 37 million, about what it was before the recession hit, he said.

“It took 10 years for food insecurity rates to recover to pre-recession numbers,” Gundersen added. “But by the end of 2020, we will have wiped out any gains in hunger we made.” The Great Recession lasted from December 2007 through June 2009.

Saying the pandemic dealt a swift blow to the economic health of individuals nationwide, Feeding America officials added that they are already seeing as much as a 50% to 60% increase in demand for food assistance nationwide over last year. And the effects have the potential to be long-term.

Currently, 40% of all individuals showing up at Feeding America food banks across the country are new to food charity, driven there by COVID-19.

“For now, with no immediate end to the crisis in sight," said a Feeding America statement, “demand for charitable food assistance is expected to remain at elevated levels for the foreseeable future.”

Believe it or not, there’s some relatively good news amid the gloomy numbers, Gundersen said.

“COVID happened when food insecurity rates had fallen after the Great Recession,” he said. “That’s a positive."

Gundersen hastened to add that the situation would be “so much worse” without food stamps (now called SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). “I can’t emphasize the critical importance of SNAP enough.”

The Trump administration has tried to curtail SNAP benefits to Americans both before and during the COVID-19 crisis.

‘Triple whammy’

These days, food banks are experiencing a “triple whammy,” according to Zuani Maria Villarreal, Feeding America’s director of communication. Unemployment over 13% is stoking food need. At the same time, donations to food charities are down because people are buying out supermarkets, “the number-one source of donations for Feeding America,” Villarreal said. On top of that, many food bank workers and volunteers are of advanced age and have absented themselves from warehouses and food pantries because they fear the coronavirus.

In Philadelphia, demand for food assistance has increased about 60% over last year, echoing national trends, said Philabundance spokesperson Samantha Retamar.

Between May 2019 and May 2020, Philabundance increased the amount of food it distributed to the 350 area sites it supplies from 2.3 million pounds to 5.4 million pounds, according to agency CEO Loree Jones.

At Share, executive director George Matysik said that prior to COVID-19, his organization, the largest hunger-relief agency in the region, served 700,000 people per month throughout the city and surrounding counties. Since the coronavirus took hold, however, that number has jumped to nearly one million.

“We are seeing such dramatic increases in poverty and need in parts of the city and region that haven’t experienced it in the past,” Matysik said. “It’s really critical for us to be as nimble as possible.”

He noted that there have been “huge increases” in food need in Upper Darby, as well as the Far Northeast. Share is adding to its roster of 500 pantries, and also plans to place 10 new refrigerated units at food-distribution sites throughout the city. Each can store 22,000 pounds of food, Matysik said.

Based in Hunting Park, Share works in partnership with the City of Philadelphia and Philabundance, headquartered in South Philadelphia, to provide food to 40 COVID-19 emergency food distribution sites throughout the city. In addition, Philabundance operates a drive-through food distribution site in the parking lot of Citizens Bank Park each Friday, scheduled to run through the end of June.

Donations down

Because donations are down everywhere, food charities must purchase more of their own food. Financial contributions from individuals have never been more important, Matysik said.

On the community level, it’s clear that more individuals are flocking to food pantries in their neighborhoods.

For example, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has recorded increases in the number of clients at its distribution sites: 80% in its Elkins Park pantry; 20% in Bala Cynwyd; 10% in Bensalem; and 15% in Center City.

“We’ve had so many new people since the start of the pandemic,” said Brian Gralnick, director of social responsibility for the federation. "So many have never been to a pantry before. They were previously comfortable. The change has been dramatic.

“And there’s no sense the demand will be easing up any time soon.”