Nonprofits struggle with challenges of rising hunger, COVID-19 restrictions during holidays

This rise in food demand is being exacerbated by the virus' logistical changes.

November 23, 2020, 5:08 AM

In Washington, D.C., the city's nonprofits that care for the hungry are bracing for a critical juncture this holiday season.

Mike Curtin, the CEO of DC Central Kitchen, which provides meals to homeless shelters, senior centers and other groups, told ABC News his team will provide 12,000 meals this Thanksgiving, a 5,000-meal increase over last year.

This rise in demand is being exacerbated by logistical changes brought on by the coronavirus, according to Curtin.

Coronavirus restrictions mean that nonprofits won't be able to provide buffet-style service this year, so meals are being prepared in individual packets. Diners also won't be able to eat together indoors or for extended periods.

Volunteer Sean Armstrong, left, hands off bagged give away turkeys to volunteer Nina Norwood at Harlem's Food Bank For New York City, Nov. 16, 2020.
Bebeto Matthews/AP

"One of the hardest things to create in an institutional setting ... is a true sense of community," Curtin told ABC News. "One of the ways we thought we could provide to get that place is that shared healthy meal. Taking that piece away is making the providers' jobs even more difficult."

The situation in the nation's capital is being played out in communities across the country, as millions of Americans -- even those who are employed -- are becoming more food insecure, according to experts.

A report issued last month by the nonprofit Feeding America found that 50.4 million Americans have been identified as food insecure, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as "a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life." In 2018, the organization said that 37.2 million Americans were food insecure.

The number of children who are food insecure has grown from 11.2 million to 17 million over the last two years, according to the report.

PHOTO: People line up to receive free holiday boxes of food from the Food Bank For New York City ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in New York, U.S., November 16, 2020.
People line up to receive free holiday boxes of food from the Food Bank For New York City ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, U.S., November 16, 2020.
Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters

A follow-up report by Feeding America issued last week found that one in six Americans, and a quarter of the nation's children, could face hunger in 2020 because of the pandemic.

"With 11.1 million people in America still unemployed, many are turning to the food banks for the first time," the nonprofit said in a news release. "Previous food bank surveys revealed that an estimated 40 percent of people seeking assistance from food banks had never needed help before."

Organizations across the country that help feed the hungry have been seeing the increased demand.

Stacey McDaniel, anti-hunger initiatives specialist for YMCA of the USA, told ABC News that their locations with food programs increased by 25% this year.

YMCAs across the country served over 37 million people between March and August, according to the McDaniel. Prior to this year, YMCAs served 27 million people a year on average,she said.

Rosie Allen-Herring, the president and CEO of the United Way of the National Capital Area, told ABC News that the biggest problem facing nonprofits is the increase of so-called ALICE households, which are "Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed."

"These are individuals who go into work every day, but they need these [food] services to get by," she told ABC News.

Allen-Herring said about 55% of residents in the Washington, D.C., area are ALICE households, while nationally it's about 40%.

Curtin said that since the pandemic began his nonprofit partners have been able to adapt and are, so far, able to keep up with the demand. For the holidays, he said the organizations created solutions to provide families with some semblance of a community get-together or dinner.

People gather for a food giveaway at Harlem's Food Bank For New York City, a community kitchen and food pantry, Nov. 16, 2020.
Bebeto Matthews/AP

For example, some of the charities in D.C. are holding their dinners outdoors, while others are experimenting with dinners where the families eat in shifts, according to Curtin.

"When you're living in a situation where every day you're trying to achieve normalcy in a non-pandemic time, getting to that place to celebrate Thanksgiving is that much harder," he said.

Curtin and other experts said the biggest challenge ahead for the nonprofits is funding. Food banks, kitchens and other charities are in desperate need of cash as Congress has stalled on stimulus assistance and donations have slowed as millions of Americans deal with their own financial crises.

In addition, said Curtin, it simply isn't safe to have many volunteers working indoors or close together.

"If you'd ask me nine months, ago I'd say come and volunteer," he said when asked what people can do to help during the holidays. "I can't say that now. We need your money and we need it desperately."

Allen-Herring also warned that the country's current hunger situation will get worse for months -- even if the economy rebounds. It will take a long time for families to recover, and without funding and additional resources, she said the country could be looking at more holidays where nonprofits have to go the extra mile.

"We see it with all of our nonprofit partners," Allen-Herring said. "That work must continue, the challenge is there. But we know we can do it."