Dayton’s food banks rise to the COVID-19 challenge, coping with fluctuating supply and demand
The Dayton Foodbank adapted to the pandemic by doubling its workforce to around 50 staff members and calling on the National Guard to help distribute food. (Photo by Steven Starr)
The demand for food assistance in Dayton and across America has surged. With food and gas prices rising, food insecurity is likely to increase.
By Stephen Starr, Elevate Dayton
As we examine how Dayton’s women, veteran and minority entrepreneurs are faring during COVID, we are also shining a light on the civic infrastructure and safety net systems that support businesses and workers, especially those most disadvantaged by COVID.
Food insecurity has emerged as one of the biggest hallmarks of the pandemic. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, hunger has increased throughout the pandemic, with as many as 30 million adults and 12 million children living in a household where they may not always get enough to eat. Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated long standing disparities in food insecurity. Black and Latino adults are more than twice as likely as White adults to report that their households did not get enough to eat.
The unprecedented rise in the demand for food assistance in Dayton and across America has surged beyond rates experienced during the 2008 Great Recession. Between March and October 2020, Feeding America, a national network of more than 200 food banks, handed out 4.2 billion meals – the most it's distributed over any nine-month period in its 40-year history.
For Dayton-area food banks and pantries, the past two years have been a whirlwind.
“At the start of the pandemic we were seeing 700 to 750 families,” says Lauren Tappel, development and marketing manager for the Dayton Foodbank, one of the largest food assistance organizations in the Dayton region. “In a typical two-hour timeframe, between 100 and 150 distributions would be conducted.”
“The biggest challenge was being able to keep enough food in.”—Nicole Adkins, executive director of With God’s Grace food pantry. (Photo by Steven Starr)
The organization quickly found itself forced to pivot in a multitude of ways: doubling its workforce to around 50 staff members and calling on the National Guard to help distribute food for a full year when volunteers couldn’t help out.
The organization adapted further by organizing mass food distribution events at stadiums and large open-area sites throughout the pandemic that could handle large numbers of people and their vehicles.
“(The pandemic) really opened people’s perspective to what hunger in America looks like,” says Tappel.
One of the biggest challenges facing food banks has been adjusting to just how much demand for food and supplies has fluctuated. The increase in the spread of COVID-19 variants last winter spurred a similar growth in demand for food and supplies, while periods following the release of stimulus payments saw demand fall.
“The biggest challenge was being able to keep enough food in,” says Nicole Adkins, executive director of With God’s Grace food pantry. “We’ve had such a huge increase in the number of families that were needing food.”
Last year, the Dayton Foodbank served 608,116 people at an average of over 39,000 meals per day. (Photo by Steven Starr)
With God’s Grace, which called on the support of 60 volunteers to staff food distribution events at the height of the pandemic, has pivoted in key ways. In December 2020, it opened an on-site Free Store for people in need at 5505 North Dixie Drive. In addition to providing quality, healthy food items at a set location, the Store serves as a venue to create deeper relationships with clients who may be in need of services such as healthcare, education or childcare.
“We really want to work with our clients to become self-sufficient,” says Adkins.
SEE RELATED STORY: Dayton’s service providers continue to help BIPOC- and women-owned businesses survive the pandemic
Supply chain problems, combined with inflation running at a 40-year high, is increasing pressure on the most vulnerable people’s ability to access quality food sources. The USDA estimates food prices at the grocery store will rise 5-6% across the board in 2022. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 30 percent of residents of the city of Dayton live below the federal poverty line – one of the highest rates in the country.
In 2021, the Dayton Foodbank served 608,116 people at an average of over 39,000 meals per day, according to figures provided by the organization.
“Right now, we’re seeing 300 to 400 families, so we’re not down to where we were before (the pandemic),” Tappel adds.
With the combination of increasing inflation and gas prices, food banks face a renewed demand for their services. “We do know that it’s going to get worse,” says Adkins.
“The problem, of course, is much bigger than what any one nonprofit can handle,” adds Daniel Warshawsky, director of the Master of Public Administration program at Wright State University.
“But they are much better prepared now than at the start of the pandemic because they had to figure out in a very short time how to get food to people while not having people in their warehouses.”
Food banks receive much of their foodstuffs and supplies from local retailers, and funding from various government agencies. In total, USDA expects to invest approximately $2 billion in the nation’s emergency food system in fiscal year 2022 with a goal of maintaining similar levels of support as in fiscal year 2021.
“One question a lot of people in the food banking industry were talking about was, ‘Will this continue? Will we be able to get the same kind of fundraising?’ Now that they’ve scaled up their operations,” says Warshawsky. “That’s a big question mark moving forward.”
If you would like to support Dayton-area food banks and pantries through donations or volunteering, you can do so through their individual websites, a list of which can be accessed here.