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As the pandemic wears on, Midwest Food Bank confronts a growing need

Food banks across the United States are seeing numbers and people they have never seen before amid unprecedented unemployment from the COVID-19 outbreak.
Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images
Food banks across the United States are seeing numbers they have never seen before amid unprecedented unemployment from the most recent COVID-19 outbreak.

Food insecurity is a reality in the lives of many people, according to Eric Hodel, who was recently named CEO of Midwest Food Bank.

Defining food insecurity as going 24 hours or more without “a line of sight to food,” Hodel said it’s an occasional hardship for some and a chronic challenge for others. But as the pandemic wears on, more and more people are turning to food pantries to get by.

Hodel estimates the number of people using food pantries in Midwest Food Bank’s network during the pandemic has increased by 15-20%. Many of those people are visiting a food pantry for the first time.

Hodel, who has worked with Midwest Food Bank since 2017, said it’s not uncommon for people who are unfamiliar with the system to show up at the organization’s warehouse and offices in Normal.

“What that told me was for the first time, they were searching out a food bank and they didn’t know where to go,” Hodel said. Midwest Food Bank functions as a distributor, serving food pantries across several states. It does not directly serve the public.

“When they come to our front door, we certainly direct them to a local pantry,” Hodel said of people seeking help.

Many first-time visitors to food pantries are coming from the hospitality industry, a sector that’s been particularly hard-hit during the pandemic, he said.

“Those aren’t great paying jobs from an hourly standpoint. Then having their hours reduced is really difficult,” Hodel said. “And here they are for the first time looking for, 'OK, how am I going to put food on the table?”

Other new visitors have suddenly found themselves with more mouths to feed. Hodel said it’s common to encounter people who've taken in family members after a job loss or other economic strain.

Midwest Food Bank has faced challenges of its own due to the pandemic. The organization has had to confront the same supply chain issues plaguing operations around the globe. “Freight costs have gone up significantly,” Hodel said, though the organization does have its own fleet of trucks. Midwest Food Bank also relies heavily on volunteer drivers, which has helped to mitigate rising costs.

The organization also has seen its food supply fluctuate during the pandemic. Hodel said the food bank generally tries to keep a four-week supply of food on hand for distribution. In the early months of the pandemic, that supply plummeted to around two weeks.

The organization is “fortunate and blessed” to back to operating with near normal supply levels, Hodel said.

Looking toward the future, Hodel hopes to see Midwest Food Bank expand its base of food donors and grow its network of volunteers. And as food insecurity continues to grow, Hodel would like to implement new divisions in those parts of the country that remain underserved.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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