Omicron Surge Leaves U.S. Food Banks in a Tough Spot

by Victoria Santiago
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Food banks are experiencing a volunteer shortage amidst a surge in omicron cases. Across the country, people are either getting sick or trying to avoid getting sick. Either way, they’re not showing up to volunteer. People are canceling their shifts or simply not showing up, and organizations that normally participate are canceling their volunteer efforts as well.

Unfortunately, it looks like food banks will be incurring higher costs than usual to try to combat this. They’ve already spent more money than usual due to increased food prices. “Food banks rely on volunteers. That’s how we keep the costs low,” said Food Bank of North Alabama CEO Shirley Schofield. “The work still gets done but at a much higher expense.”

Everyone is aware that there’s a lack of volunteers, but the issue was glaringly obvious on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On the national holiday, many food banks would organize mass volunteer drives. These drives would tie into a bigger day filled with acts of service. However, with the lack of people volunteering, many places ended up canceling their drives. For the organizations that still had their drives, attendance was drastically low. For one food bank in Oakland, CA, the national holiday is usually “without fail, our biggest volunteer event of the year.” However, this year they only had 73 volunteers show up. In years past, their numbers exceeded 200, with every single volunteer slot being taken.

Even though people are staying away for their own health, there’s also a more subtle impact that the pandemic has had on volunteers. It’s clear that many are burnt out emotionally and physically and simply don’t have the space in their life to give back. Normally, volunteering is a huge part of a community and helps people connect with each other and their neighborhoods.

Food Banks Undergoing Higher Food Prices Due to Inflation and Supply Chain Issues

Food Banks have had serious hits to their finances because of rising food prices. Of course, the lack of volunteers only makes this issue worse. There are so many steps that volunteers are needed for – and not having people to help means that it costs more to get the job done. Perhaps the biggest step is packaging all of the food before it gets sent out or handed out to those in need. It’s an incredibly time-consuming task and therefore requires volunteers. Without people to help, prepackaged food is a must.

Unfortunately, AP reports that prepackaged food is also much more expensive. For example, the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C. has had to buy prepackaged food. CEO Radha Muthiah says that “when it’s prepackaged, that tends to increase the price significantly.” She added that a truckload of produce by itself usually costs around $9,000. The price of a truckload of ready-to-hand-out food can easily reach $18,000.

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