Panic-buying, staffing shortages make it harder for food pantries to feed families

Justice Center food line Thursday
Posted at 6:13 PM, Mar 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-19 19:13:20-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — The Justice Center normally distributes food to 300 to 500 people every week, but on Thursday, more than 2,000 people went through the line.

Many community centers and pantries in the Kansas City metro are seeing an increased need. Many people have recently been laid off because of the coronavirus.

Pantries are under more pressure, and the need isn't going away soon.

"It's just hectic out here," said Nicole Bryant, who walked away with a bag of chicken and ribs on Thursday. "People can't pay their bills, people can't pay their phone bills."

Bryant has been without work for three days so far.

"They're telling us to come back in April or maybe May," Bryant said. "I work for Amazon right now and they're laying us off. GM as well, they had already laid us off."

Tony Caldwell says the Justice Center ordered several trucks full of meat that will arrive next Thursday, but the pantry will need more donations to keep it going.

"This epidemic has really hurt our community. But because of a lot of good people that are standing together making it happen, we're pulling together," Caldwell said.

Pantries across the metro are working extra hard to find food. They're losing monetary donations due to canceled events and fundraisers, and they are sending volunteers and non-essential workers home.

Beth Low-Smith with KC Healthy Kids, a food access advocacy organization, says it's not that there's a food shortage, but rather major disruptions in the supply chain.

"Other supply disruptions are happening due to panic-buying. So that's another good reason to not panic-buy because you're disrupting the food supply for emergency food suppliers, too," Low-Smith said.

Congress recently passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which includes key provisions such as paid sick leave, free testing and unemployment benefits.

"It includes additional funding and flexibilities for government nutrition programs. It's going to mean it's easier to enroll in programs like SNAP and WIC if you've experienced an abrupt change in your income," Low-Smith said.

An extra challenge right now for pantries is to provide enough food for low-income people who have dietary restrictions.

The Food Equality Initiative serves people who have food allergies and celiac disease, who are having a hard time finding food that won't risk their safety and health.

Founder Emily Brown says panic-buying also means that allergy-safe food items are flying off the shelves, when any other time those items would still be around.

The organization needs gluten-free bread and pasta, dairy-free milk, egg substitutes and peanut butter alternatives.

"We know that without access to safe foods, individuals are at risk of making the difficult decision to having to eat something rather than go hungry," Brown said. "We don't want to see an uptick in accidental exposure and anaphylaxis because we can't have any additional strain on our health care system right now."

Food Equality Initiative shut down its pantry operations and will move to a delivery or shipping method next week. Clients will still receive the food they need.

How can you help? Cash donations. Call the food pantries in your neighborhood to find out what they need.