Serving up kindness: How to help food banks, food rescues and more tackle food insecurity this holiday

Check out how "GMA" is helping address hunger this holiday season.

December 20, 2023, 8:17 AM

Millions of Americans will rely on some form of food assistance and generosity of their local communities this holiday season to secure a meal.

Although the prevalence of food insecurity varies considerably by state, as a whole, 1 in 8 households, or 44.2 million people in the U.S. experience food insecurity or lack of access to an affordable, nutritious diet, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Forty-nine million people turned to food programs in 2022 alone, according to Feeding America, further highlighting how much of an impact those resources can have to help those in need of access to affordable, nutritious food for themselves and their families, especially at a time when inflation is driving up the price of groceries.

PHOTO: Volunteers and DeMarco Morgan help fill boxes for Food Bank for New York City's Community Kitchen and Pantry.
Volunteers and DeMarco Morgan help fill boxes for Food Bank for New York City's Community Kitchen and Pantry.
ABC News

To help fight hunger disparity as food banks across the country are feeling the pinch when it comes to keeping shelves stocked, "Good Morning America" is serving up kindness and lending a hand to organizations across the country.

Snapshot of participating food banks across the U.S.

Atlanta, Georgia: Atlanta Community Food Bank
Brooklyn Park, Minnesota: Second Harvest Heartland
Chicago, Illinois: Greater Chicago Food Depository
Dallas, Texas: North Texas Food Bank
Houston, Texas: Houston Food Bank
Flint, Michigan: Food Bank of Eastern Michigan
Lake Charles, Louisiana: Second Harvest Food BankLos Angeles, California: LA Regional Food Bank
Wichita, Kansas: Kansas Food Bank
North Carolina:
The Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina in Raleigh
Second Harvest Food Bank of Southeast North Carolina in Fayetteville

Feeding the soul through volunteering to feed others

PHOTO: A volunteer from Food Bank for New York City's Community Kitchen and Pantry helps hand out food donations in New York City.
A volunteer from Food Bank for New York City's Community Kitchen and Pantry helps hand out food donations in New York City.
ABC News

In Harlem, hungry residents are greeted by Food Bank for New York City's Community Kitchen and Pantry volunteers with a warm smile and a hot plate of food.

Camesha Grant, vice president of community impact and investment for the organization, told "GMA" that there's a difficult potential reality for residents that serves as the catalyst for this imperative work.

"Everyone in New York City is potentially one step away from our pantry lines because you never know when you might lose a job or when your circumstances might change in your family," Grant said.

Jennifer Caslin, who works with Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, echoed those sentiments, telling "GMA," "These are people who are our friends, our neighbors, people who go to school with your kids -- you just never know what's going on with somebody."

In Chicago, Marianne Nelson, a truck driver at the Northern Illinois Food Bank, told "GMA" that they "see the need, that urgency in your pantries and in the people -- if they don't get this [food] today, they may go hungry tomorrow. That's what drives me."

For head chef Sheri Jefferson and her culinary team at Food Bank for New York City's Community Kitchen and Pantry, feeding those in need is as important as feeding your soul: "Everything that we cook with, we serve with nothing but love."

PHOTO: Head chef Sherri Jefferson helps feed her community at Food Bank for New York City's Community Kitchen and Pantry.
Head chef Sherri Jefferson helps feed her community at Food Bank for New York City's Community Kitchen and Pantry.
ABC News

Eight years ago the single mom of three said she found purpose in her new beginning as a trained chef.

"I remember the first time that I served meals when I was helping out, I was an assistant and I watched faces. I saw me," she said. "I saw days when you know how some people will say, 'I don't have a dollar to my name,' I saw days when there was nothing."

Every meal and interaction at food banks is a reflective experience that's fueled almost entirely by donations and time from volunteers.

New York volunteer Javier Gonzalez told "GMA" that the most rewarding part is "the people -- whether it's the team here at the food bank, the volunteers that I work with," or "the clients that, you know, come armed with smiles and their shopping carts and really share such beautiful gratitude."

Jefferson added, "I think people forget or they see soup kitchens as being one particular thing -- you're homeless, you're this or that -- [but] once you actually come and get a real visualization and understanding, your heart can only go out to these people."

Zeroing in on zero-waste and rescuing precious resources

In addition to food banks, food rescue organizations such as City Harvest in New York stop food from going to waste and bring it to partner soup kitchens and food pantries across the city. This year alone, City Harvest is on track to rescue 77 million pounds of food.

City Harvest driver Ade McCoy has worked with the nonprofit for five years, and "GMA" joined along for a ride to see how each stop of his nearly 16 per day -- which spans from local supermarkets to Michelin-starred restaurants -- serves as an opportunity to feed those in need.

Grocery stores like Wegmans rolled out several pallets stacked with everything from poultry to fruit, while chef Eric Ripert wheeled out a cart full of fresh food and produce from the kitchen of his famed seafood restaurant, Le Bernadin.

After all the stops, McCoy drops off all the items at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen for their food pantry, where people line up to get their hands on quality, nutritious items.

"These people, they don't even have to say thank you to me. You don't have to say thank you. I can see it in your face already. Cause I know a lot of times when we pull up in our truck, they're smiling already, they know what they're about to get," McCoy said. "To me, that's gratifying -- that's what it's all about, honestly."

All the volunteers help make City Harvest possible, including people like Ceil Witherspoon who discovered the organization in the food line herself and has now been helping for nearly a decade.

"I realized as I'm standing on the line, I should be on the other side helping out, because I could do better over there," Witherspoon told "GMA. "It brings kind of like a happiness that people can depend on you, even if it's for a bag of onions."

She added that while a lot of people think they wouldn't use or need this resource, they too might eventually "wind up on the line -- You're always going to need help somewhere."

Church farm grows food for those in need

At Mt. Gilead Farm in Richmond, Virginia, parishioner William Dugger Sr. has been tending to the nondenominational Christian church's land since 2019 to provide fresh, locally grown food for the community in need.

"It’s a blessing to be a blessing. So I wanted to help someone else to navigate through life as I've been helped," Dugger, who goes by Captain, told "GMA."

According to Feeding America, as of 2021, 1 in 12 people in the state faced food insecurity -- that's over 700,000 people worrying about where their next meal might come from.

"This is going on our fourth year now and [the] year's not up -- and we done harvested over 41,000 pounds [of produce already]," Dugger said. "We went from 5,000 to 41,000 pounds in four years.”

As a result of that hard work and steady growth, Mt. Gilead Farm has been able to assist the Chesterfield Food Bank Outreach Center directly.

The farm has also added education to its mission, teaching local kids and teens how to farm and about all the benefits it can provide.

Uplifting a Louisiana Community in Need

Second Harvest Food Bank in South Louisiana has been hard at work caravanning pallets of food to a hungry community in need, where one in eight people experience food insecurity -- Lake Charles.

After the two fatal Category 4 hurricanes destroyed the area, including five grocery stores, the community came together to find a solution with Second Harvest to create a mobile market that brings affordable groceries closer to the residents experiencing food insecurity.

"Lake Charles is a special community. They've been hit by multiple hurricanes," Brittany Bowie, Impact Operations Director for Second Harvest told "GMA." "When you think about specifically North Lake Charles not having those grocery stores, that's access to quality of life, of not having food. So our mobile grocery stores [are] making groceries [available in a] mobile market, that goes into different parts of Lake Charles so that we can provide that essential needs to those community members."

Bowie said when the team goes into the community they're "identifying the most impactful needs to them and how do we respond."

Second Harvest volunteer Alisa Stevens told "GMA" "it's just grown exponentially -- some days we have 150 transactions that we complete in a two hour period."

The groceries are sold at steep discounts with vegetables ranging in price from 25 cents to $1.50, a dozen eggs for $1.50 and a pound of ground beef for $3.

One of the residents who makes use of the market, Bim Smith, told "GMA" that those foods purchased from a traditional retailer would cost "maybe triple the price we pay here."

Already, Smith has checked off her family's holiday grocery needs for just over $30.

"I feel so blessed -- I'm not speaking just for myself. I'm speaking for them, too," she said of her fellow community members.

"It's a feeling that you get that a paycheck can't replace. It is just knowing that you're making a positive difference in someone's life," Stevens said on what it means to volunteer with Second Harvest.

How to get involved to fight hunger

Whether it's collecting canned and nonperishable goods to donate to a local food pantry or rallying a group of friends to volunteer at a soup kitchen, there are plenty of ways Americans can get involved. Check your local food pantries and explore non-profit organizations in your area to volunteer food, culinary skills or other forms of donating.

PHOTO: Volunteers inside the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
Volunteers inside the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
ABC News

More ways to help food pantries

Even if you can't lend a hand by cooking or collecting food in person, there are plenty of ways to get involved, even without being physically present.

Organize an online food drive

People can host a virtual food drive with these easy steps from Feeding America.

Fundraise with friends and family

Start an online fundraiser through Team Feed and Feeding America to get friends and family involved.

Get social savvy

Share efforts to fight hunger on social media and spread the word.

Check in with local businesses

Ask local restaurants, cafes and food businesses if they have systems in place to distribute perishable and unused food.

Volunteer and say thank you

Find a local food bank here and check in to see their need for volunteers. Thank food bank staff and volunteers on the front lines who help millions of families. Kindness goes a long way, especially during the holidays.

An earlier version of this story was originally published on Dec. 7, 2023