Jason Whitman/shutterstock

Jason Whitman/shutterstock

Cars snaked for miles down the interstate, people waiting to receive a box of fresh food at a community food bank near Pittsburgh. Seven hours in, hundreds were still lined up outside America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia. Ten thousand households waited in their cars for a food bank giveaway at a South Side flea market in San Antonio

Before the coronavirus upended lives and livelihoods, 37 million low-income Americans were already facing food insecurity, populations that were disproportionately people of color. Now, as students who relied on school lunch programs are homebound, the elderly are shut in, and 17 million Americans have joined the ranks of the unemployed, access to food has become increasingly precarious. Add disrupted food chains, grocery shelves emptied by panicked shoppers, and shuttered restaurants, and alarms are sounding. 

What combination of public, private and philanthropic support is putting food on American tables—and in the hands of vulnerable populations struggling to find their next meals?

Government Response

The first line of defense has to be the federal government. Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger relief organization, says that the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) alone provides nine meals for each one it’s able to serve through its network of 200 food banks. 

Two waves of food security funding have already hit, totaling more than $25 billion. Signed into law on March 18, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act targeted out-of-school students, providing WIC, the program for low-income women, infants and children, with $500 million, and TEFAP, the emergency food assistance program, with $400 million. It also increased accessibility to SNAP benefits—which were already helping 40 million Americans buy their own groceries—but failed to support other vulnerable populations like seniors, and the increased needs of low-income families sheltering in place.

The second wave was part of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Security (CARES) Act that became law on March 25. It earmarked $8.8 billion to help schools continue to feed students, $15.5 billion to expand SNAP benefits, and $450 million for food banks and community distribution programs. As of mid-April, congress was still trying to reach a consensus on the next round of relief, including increased food assistance for low-income populations. 

Corporate Response

Well-versed in disaster relief, corporations and their foundations led the initial COVID-19 philanthropic response, stepping up with a full 83 percent of pledges made by mid-March. Even in early days, a remarkable number made food insecurity part of their urgent needs investment strategies—whether or not hunger aligned with business purposes and historical giving.

Within the food and beverage industry, ConAgra foods, whose product donations to Feeding America last year translated to 16 million meals, boosted donations between March 16 and 19 by 2.1 million, and made cash contributions of $1.75 million to Feeding America and local food banks. Agricultural giant Cargill addressed food insecurity in the Twin Cities by opening its cafeteria doors to the MN Central Kitchen—increasing meals for Minnesotans by 4,000 a day—and making a $1 million foundation grant to help Appetite for Change produce 120,000 meals across sites. 

One of the world’s largest food companies, Kraft Heinz, made a commitment valued at $6.6 million to address hunger in the U.S., including $1.9 million in cash to Feeding America, and $4.7 million in products. The Campbell Soup Company responded to COVID-19 with cash and product donations of approximately $2.5 million for food banks in 33 communities. Kellogg initially committed $600,000 to The Global FoodBanking Network (GFN), Feeding America, and the United Way of Battle Creek, but increased that by $1 million days later. 

The PepsiCo Foundation made nutrition for the 22 million U.S. school children who were entitled to free or low-cost lunch a central part of its total $15.8 million commitment to North America. General Mills targeted the same at-risk group, committing $5 million to ensuring students don’t go hungry during school closures. 

The country’s largest grocer is Walmart, where food sales account for 56% of total revenue. In response to the pandemic, The Walmart Foundation committed $10 million to nine organizations that support food banks, senior meal programs and school nutrition, including Meals on WheelsUnidosUS, and Hunger Free America

More surprising may be the financial services sector, which came in fast and strong. More than half of the financial services companies reporting COVID interventions made food insecurity a priority, including Bank of America, BlackRock, HSBC and JPMorgan Chase. Other cases in point include Citi Foundation’s $5 million commitment to No Kid Hungry, the Morgan Stanley Foundation’s $2 million pledge to Feeding America, and the Synchrony Financial Foundation’s $5 million investment in hunger relief organizations stressed by the virus. 

Private, Collective and Individual Responses

But the response is coming from all quarters, attracting foundation, collective and individual efforts. 

For example, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which usually works in humanities and the arts, committed $250,000 to God’s Love We Deliver and $1 million to Citymeals on Wheels. And food insecurity is part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) total $50 million immediate short-term relief efforts. 

The largest collective effort, America’s Food Fund, was launched by Leonardo DiCaprio, Laurene Powell Jobs, the Ford Foundation, Apple and Oprah on April 1 with the goal of providing food to the most vulnerable—kids who are out of school, the unemployed, the elderly, and low-income families. One hundred percent of donations, less GoFundMe.org transaction fees, will go to two partners: Feeding America, which ranks 4th on CANDID’s list of top coronavirus recipients, and World Central Kitchen, a “first food responder” founded by chef José Andrés that shines in crisis situations. WCK’s COVID-19 efforts include repurposing restaurants for meal delivery, feeding front line workers, and mapping vulnerable communities. Last week, it announced it had served a million meals in the 28 days since its coronavirus hunger relief program began. 

Since its creation, America’s Food Fund has attracted more than 12,000 donors. Fund-raising results stand at $13.8 million, closing in on its goal of $15 million. High profiles donors include the fund’s co-founders and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, whose $100,000 donation was the first move he made after creating “Start Small,” a $1 billion commitment to addressing COVID, girls health and education, and universal basic income.  

Sports icons and entertainment figures are creating once-in a-lifetime experiences for the All in Challenge, which is directing 100 percent of proceeds to providing food for kids, the elderly and frontline workers through partners like Meals in Wheels, No Kid Hungry and America’s Food Fund. Started by Fanatics founder and chairman Michael Rubin and friends, the effort raised two and a half million in its first day. Chances for a walk-on role in a Scorsese film start at ten bucks, while bidding for spending the Tampa Bay opener with Tom Brady is already at $50,000. 

On an individual level, Jeff Bezos made his second major philanthropic commitment this year, pledging $100 million to Feeding America. CEO Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, called the gift the largest in its history, saying it will help provide food to “millions of neighbors facing hardship during this crisis.” 

As demand continues to exceed supply, root causes remain, and the ranks of the unemployed continue to swell, these and other efforts are critical to helping vulnerable Americans access one of the most basic of human rights: the simple right to food.

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