Hunger for the Holidays: Food Banks Overwhelmed by Families in Need as Coronavirus Federal Funds Run Low

People wait in long lines at Florida food bank.
Food banks are deluged with people needing help in feeding their families.Getty

Millions of Americans have turned to food banks in these dire times.

Millions of Americans reeling from unprecedented loss because of the coronavirus pandemic have now overwhelmed food banks, waiting for hours and sometimes overnight to receive sustenance for their families as the holidays approach.

In record numbers not seen since the Great Depression, more and more families have stepped forward to accept help in the form of food. Millions have swallowed their pride, and accepted what they would have deemed charity a year ago. Because in 2020, these families are running out of money.

According to a recent study, one in three families with children said they don't have enough to eat. Most federal benefits, including $600 weekly unemployment checks, have expired, while a new COVID-19 stimulus bill  is expected to be voted on by Congress early this week.

The first federal aid since spring, the latest aid package was agreed on late Sunday. The $900 billion bill would grant $600 checks to individuals, half the amount given in April, and was immediately criticized as being too little. It would also send $400 million to deluged food banks, an amount also considered by many as being not enough.

Those who are tirelessly trying to feed Americans during staggering unemployment rates and spiking coronavirus cases have grown ever more anxious.

“We’re now seeing families who had an emergency fund but it’s gone and they’re at the end of their rope," Kristin Warzocha, president of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, told The Guardian. "We’re going to be doing this for a really long time, and that’s frankly terrifying given the impact hunger has on physical health, learning and development for children and parents’ stress."

Numbers tell a frightening story. Many food banks have reported those seeking help has more than doubled and tripled this year. 

Feeding America, the country's largest food relief network, has dispensed a record-setting number of meals — 4.2 billion from March to October. It has experienced a 60% increase in users, and nearly half that number had never asked for help before, the agency said.

"As the holidays arrive, many of our neighbors are facing a difficult realization: for the first time, they won't be able to afford food for their family, as layoffs and business closures have interrupted the incomes of many Americans," reads a statement on the organization's website.

Images also tell a staggering tale.

News photographs and videos showed cars backed up for miles, and people standing in lines that stretched for blocks. 


In Texas, for example, food bank administrators fear they may have to ration supplies to keep from running out of food. In other states, volunteers have had to post signs saying their food banks had nothing left on their shelves as hundreds waited in line.

“Food insecurity is twice as high as before the pandemic. We’ve had a lot of federal aid and that’s all going away at the end of the year,” said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas. “We are facing a kind of a food cliff and we are worried of how long we are going to be able to keep up with demand without the help of the federal government," she told the Texas Tribune.

Thanksgiving was especially stressful, as the number of people hoping to get a holiday meal for their families skyrocketed.

In Southern California, a temporary drive-through was opened to distribute food for the holiday. In three hours, some 2,000 families had already made their way through the line, Michael Flood, president and CEO of Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, told CNBC.

Through its 700 partner agencies, the food bank is now serving 900,000 people per month. Last year's monthly total was 350,000.

“If you told me in January, 'Your distribution is going to increase 145% and you’ll be reaching 900,000 people per month by the fall,' I would have said, ‘I don’t think so,’” Flood said.

“But that’s what’s happened.”

In Texas, more than 5,000 families showed up outside AT&T Stadium to get holiday food items. In Chicago, more than 1,000 people wearing winter coats and masks stood in long lines to receive a free turkey from Chance the Rapper's charitable foundation.

Santa arrived at a Salvation Army food pantry in Lynn, Massachusetts as families received holiday food. Last year, the site served an average of 60 families a day. That number is now 600.


In Rhode Island, where one in four residents can't meet basic food needs, one administrator doesn't think his charity can get through the end of the year without help from Congress. 

"We're coming up against that moment when bankruptcy, eviction and hunger" will overwhelm what's available from charitable services, Andrew Schiff, director of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, told the The Providence Journal

"I don’t think we’re going to get through this unless Congress approves another COVID-19 relief bill," he said.

If you would like to donate to a local food bank or volunteer to pack food boxes, you can do so here, at the Feeding America website.