MintPress News spoke to a number of people on the front lines attempting to keep America fed during the worst pandemic in a century.
At least 10,000 cars line up in an orderly fashion in San Antonio, all full of hungry, increasingly desperate people. Thousands already arrived the night before just to get a chance to eat. “We just can’t feed this many,” said the CEO of the local food bank that Texans have descended upon.
It is a scene playing out across the country; 1,300 cars swamped the drive-thru Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank. The United Center, home to the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks, has been transformed into a huge food warehouse, as COVID-19 has driven a wedge through the cracks in American society, where tens of millions of people now face unemployment and hunger.
Some have claimed that the food lines are a glimpse into what a future American socialist state would look like. However, this is not a hypothetical society but a very real present. It is Breadline 2020, today’s America. Existing food banks are struggling to cope; one worker of a food bank in Baton Rouge, LA, claimed that the current situation is worse than after Hurricane Katrina.
MintPress News spoke to a number of people on the front lines attempting to keep America fed during the worst pandemic in a century. “Needs have skyrocketed not just here but around the country,” said Eleanor Goldfield, a creative activist, and journalist.
One man who called us here at D.C. Mutual Aid to request help said that he had walked several miles the day before in order to get to a local food bank only to find that they were closed. He said he was completely out of food and didn’t understand how they could just shut down operations like that.”
Along with Guayaquil, Ecuador, the New York-New Jersey metro area is one of the world epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic. Authorities have barely any idea about how many people have died; New York State’s estimate for the New York City death toll is over 1,000 more than the city’s own count – an indication of just how badly overwhelmed the system is. Over one percent of all retirees are currently in hospital with COVID-19. “People are dying left and right, no exaggeration,” Derrick Smith, a local certified registered nurse anesthetist, told us last week, “I’ve never imagined or seen our healthcare system take such a beating before.” Makeshift morgues – cooled trailers full of bodies – are a feature of most hospitals in the area now, and mass graves are being dug on an uninhabited island in the Long Island Sound.
“New York City is facing a crisis unlike anything we’ve seen. As the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic continues, more New Yorkers are facing food insecurity,” said the Food Bank for New York City. It estimates that it will have to provide 15 million meals over the next 90 days.
This is what I saw. Blistering heat. Folks in line since 7pm the night before. To get food. Hundreds of volunteers busting it to serve, so families could go home (probably to pass some out to their neighbors too) & get the nourishment they need.
This is the COVID-19 Crisis. pic.twitter.com/CL8Be0wNwI
— Robert R. Fike (@robfike) April 9, 2020
“We have seen a significant increase in demand for food, about 30-40 percent higher,” said Karla Bardinas of Fulfill, formerly the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, New Jersey.
These meals are on top of what we were already serving as a direct result of schools and businesses being closed and people losing their jobs.”
Workers on the frontline not only have to deal with increased demand but also the very real risk of death. “We recently lost a colleague, Diana Tennant, age 51, from complications of the coronavirus…so of course, it has been difficult. But we all have a commitment to feeding our neighbors who are food insecure, and now, more than ever, people need our help to put food on their tables, so we are inspired to work hard to continue our mission,” Bardinas told MintPress.
Even taking the maximum precautions possible, critical workers are putting themselves on the line every day. That is one thing when you are a medical worker like Smith, knowing before you sign up that exposure to infection is always a risk. It is quite another for low paid workers in retail. Last week a 27-year-old grocery store worker at Giant Foods in Maryland died after contracting the virus. Her mother claimed that the store refused to provide protective equipment. She was given her last paycheck: $20.64. “My baby’s gone because of $20.64. You know what using the proper PPE could’ve done for my baby?” she asked MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle. Both Bardinas and Goldfield said their organizations are taking strict safety precautions in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Like with so much else, it is the poor that are being hit hardest by the coronavirus. 1.5 million New Yorkers are food insecure at the best of times. The South Bronx has the highest rates of hunger – 37 percent – of any community in the United States. In the Bronx, the poorest borough of New York, people are dying at over twice the rate as they are in Manhattan. While the rich have the means to shelter in place and use their savings during a crisis, that option is not available to the poor, not least because of the anemic response from the government, who have been quick to bail out industry, but much slower to help the people. Nearly half of America was already broke before the pandemic. Furthermore, 32 percent of Bronx residents work in caring professions (nurses, care workers, teachers, etc) and simply cannot work from home as others can.
COVID-19 rate & 2009 foreclosure petition rate in Boston neighborhoods pic.twitter.com/oMDpQDrwxt
— Toby Merrill (@tobmer) April 7, 2020
It is a similar story the world over. In Brazil, residents of urban shantytowns cannot safely self-isolate, as their houses lack private rooms and do not have the ability to store large quantities of food. Furthermore, few have piped water, making washing hands and other sanitary practices impossible. In India, the government has declared a generalized three-week lockdown, offering 2,000 rupees (around $26) to all citizens to get them through. But locals complain this is far from enough to sustain themselves and that the poor, who live semi-communally, lack the equipment to cook at home, thus putting them at greater risk.
Back in D.C., Goldfield is putting a brave face on it, but it is clear food banks around the country are struggling to keep up with demand. “We’re doing the best we can. Mutual aid is powerful in that it rolls with what comes – fluid but never flimsy,” she said, “we’ve been making our own masks and hand sanitizer. We now have more delivery days set up, and are expanding our network to access produce, bread, meat and cheese from local and environmentally conscious producers.” In New Jersey, Bardinas says Fulfill has had serious problems acquiring certain products but is currently rising to the challenge. “But our expenses are exorbitant meeting the increase in demand. We could use monetary donations that will give us the flexibility to immediately meet the needs of our community at fulfillNJ.org.” Virtually every food bank across the country is in a similarly difficult position.
“It is powerful and heavy working here right now…this is the first time I’ve been in D.C. for such a long stretch of time. But right now, everywhere is the frontline. Everywhere is crushed by the horrific failings of our oppressive capitalist system,” said Goldfield, adding:
Mutual aid is how we fight, and how we build. It’s horrible to see how fragile the construct of our society is, how easily it disposes of the most marginalized. Yet, it would be far worse to ignore that reality than to see it and act upon it. I’m hopeful that this work will not only see us through this crisis but create the foundations of what is to come, after the storm is over.”
The great author and activist Arundhati Roy recently wrote that the current pandemic is a portal to the future: “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” The storm might far be over, but there is the possibility to use the crisis to build a fairer society, one where the need for food banks will be relegated to the pages of history books.
Feature photo | Boxes of food are distributed by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, at a drive thru distribution near PPG Arena in downtown Pittsburgh, April 10, 2020. Gene J. Puskar | AP
Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, Common Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.