Traditionally at the holidays, people open their wallets and food cabinets to give to those less fortunate.

But, as if anyone needs reminding, this is 2020, the year that’s upended all custom.

Economic hardship engendered by the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated food need for growing numbers of Americans. As a result, many people simply can’t afford to indulge their altruistic impulses to write checks or tote canned goods to food pantries that feed the disadvantaged at Thanksgiving.

They are the disadvantaged now.

“Giving is not on pace with the increase in demand for food out there,” said George Matysik, executive director of Share Food Program in Hunting Park, the largest distributor of charitable food in the area. “We have yet to see an uptick in giving for the holidays.”

Between March 1 and June 30, Share received $1.2 million in donations, Matysik said. But from July 1 through last week, as the pandemic raged on, rates of giving fell to nearly half that amount, with just $700,000 coming in.

Meanwhile, need continues to rise exponentially.

In October 2019, Share disbursed 2 million to 2.5 million pounds of food to pantries in the region. While not all the numbers are in yet, Share will likely have given away 10 million pounds in October 2020, Matysik said.

“These are simply record numbers,” he said.

Share can handle the load, Matysik added, but said that the agency is being financially strained: “We had to expand staff threefold, our fleet of trucks fourfold, and our refrigeration and freezer capacity fivefold.”

‘Staggering need’

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on families' bank accounts, changing the way they get their food.

Around 19% of grocery shoppers — nearly one in five — say they have gotten charitable food since the pandemic started, according to a national survey by Consumer Reports. Of that group, half say they hadn’t used these food programs in the year leading up to the pandemic.

For Black and Hispanic households, the need was greater. More than one-third of African American grocery shoppers said they used a food program in the time of the coronavirus, while 22% of Hispanic shoppers did. For white shoppers, the figure was 15%.

“There is such a staggering need experienced by people who never needed help before,” said Patrick Walsh, director of programs at Martha’s Choice Marketplace, a food pantry in Norristown. The number of weekly clients there tripled during the pandemic, from 250 to 750, he said.

“We are definitely in need of funding help.”

Those Thanksgiving dollars aren’t always available.

“People who were donating for the holidays before haven’t had enough to donate this year,” noted Compton Chase, who runs the Somerton food pantry.

Brian Gralnick, of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, agreed. “We are seeing need grossly outpace donations from charitable giving and in-kind donations,” said Gralnick, director of social responsibility for the agency. “It’s very much looking like a dark winter in terms of making sure every person in our region has enough food to get through winter until spring, when we’re hoping to have vaccines for the virus.”

Jack Belitsky, 80, of Northeast Philadelphia, said he went from running a food pantry in his neighborhood to being the client of one. Belitsky, who was an elementary schoolteacher and reading specialist in the Neshaminy School District for 36 years, broke his hip more than a year ago, which has slowed him down.

He now receives food from the Jewish Federation’s Mitzvah Food Program. “I know from running a pantry that around Thanksgiving, people just want to help others more," said Belitsky, who lives alone. "They’re much more responsive to the needs of others. I’m not embarrassed to say I’m being helped that way now.”

Defying trends

Countering patterns throughout the area, Philabundance is reporting that its donations are actually increasing. It’s not clear why the hunger-relief agency headquartered in South Philadelphia is defying trends. But no one is complaining.

“While need is growing 30% to 60%, Philabundance saw a dramatic increase in generosity,” said CEO Loree Jones. “As a result, we were able to distribute millions of additional pounds of food to people in our communities.”

Numbers show that 16,195 donors gave Philabundance $5.7 million between March and September 2019. During that same period in 2020, coinciding with the pandemic, 83,895 donors contributed nearly $25 million.

“Donations ranged from 10 cents to a million dollars,” Jones said. “Many people contributed part or all of their federal stimulus checks, believing that others needed it more than they did themselves.”

Along with satisfying their holiday spirit, many donors are moved to give money to nonprofits such as Philabundance at the end of the year because charitable gifts are tax deductible, Jones said.

Others prefer to donate food. “They feel good about it,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against hunger. “It’s a tangible thing to give.”

But donating tuna or boxes of pasta ultimately isn’t the answer.

“We’d need people to keep bringing in food from now until the end of time to help everyone who needs it,” Fisher said. “Monetary donations stretch further, helping places like Share and Philabundance.”

As it happens, food pantries were never meant to be an everyday panacea for hunger, Fisher and other hunger experts have said. They were invented in the 1970s for emergencies only.

Fisher added that food banks play too large a role in feeding America. “Instead, we should be addressing income inequality and getting people jobs with sustaining wages,” she said.

“It’s great for people to pitch in and help supply pantries. But we as a society have to figure out a better way to feed people in need.”