Coronavirus is producing a wave of need that will likely overwhelm most local food distribution charities and meal programs. But that doesn’t mean people have to go hungry.
Even before this virus hit, food banks and pantries were struggling to meet the needs of an estimated 37 million Americans who routinely struggle with hunger. Similarly, in many communities there’s a waiting list for Meals on Wheels, the main vehicle through which many home-bound elders access meals. Now, these and other networks are facing an unprecedented trifecta of difficulty.
Charitable donations of food and money—the lifeblood of all nonprofits—will likely be impacted by the economic tailspin caused by the virus. Volunteerism will also decrease, as companies, religious groups, schools, and individuals pull back out of concern for their members’ safety. (In addition, many volunteers are seniors, and they will need to step back from the work for their own safety.) Finally, demand for free and low-cost food will soar, as Americans of all ages, who are impacted by lay-offs, canceled events, and retirement plan losses will turn to charities for help.
We have to admit, as we have with our healthcare system, that our charitable systems aren’t prepared to meet an emergency of this level. So, we need to innovate—and we need to do it fast.
While the federal government weighs its response, and national groups including Feeding America, Meals on Wheels, and others work overtime to keep their networks sourced with food, we should also look at how to support our own communities in this unprecedented movement of anxiety, fear, and need. Here are my suggestions:
Launch an elder grocery support network. Many communities have Facebook or Nextdoor pages dedicated to sharing news. These can be activated to enlist healthy, willing, and able-bodied volunteers to shop and run errands for frightened, health-compromised elders. Physical contact must be limited, but volunteers can leave groceries outside people’s homes and funds can be transferred electronically before or after the supplies are bought. Volunteers can shop later at night to avoid crowds. Volunteers can also make stops at pharmacies or drug stores and elders should be reminded to buy things they might need if they become ill. For example, Gatorade or other forms of electrolytes could be vital. Also ask about pets’ needs.
Start a shared meal program. As you shop for your own supplies, consider buying extra food to prepare meals for neighbors. Rice and beans, soup, chili, and baked pasta are all easy, affordable options. Cost-conscious recipes are easy to find online. Food safety must be a priority. Cook food to a proper temperature, and deliver anything you make within two hours, to avoid contamination. Use disposable bowls and plates if you can, to avoid the need to return containers. If possible, try to use microwave-friendly packaging (avoid tinfoil and styrofoam). Write a note of comfort, and include the time the meal was cooked and any reheating directions.
Fight isolation. For many elders, the pain of loneliness often exceeds that of hunger. Organize your community to check in with people. Walk your neighbors’ dogs, help tend their gardens, or cut some spring flowers to brighten their worlds. You can chat, or drink a glass of wine together by phone or over video, which gives you the ability to communicate eye-to-eye with people. Either way, if you can help lessen the impact of this period of social isolation, it will go a long way.
As my friend Chef José Andrés of World Central Kitchen said recently, “Sometimes the bigger problems we face in humanity have simple solutions. But they don’t happen when we’re in continuous meetings about how to solve them.… Stop talking, stop planning, and start cooking.” I couldn’t agree more.
We’re in the midst of an unprecedented disaster, and we can’t expect charity, or the government to meet the rising need. Nor can we let fear overcome us. Now is the time to fight hunger with community. You can be a local hero who stands up and says, “Let’s do this.” All it takes is determination, compassion, and a working kitchen.