BOSTON – An hour and a half before opening, cars began lining up around the block outside a food bank in Waltham, a suburb of Boston.

Within 45 minutes of opening, the shelves were completely bare, the Boston Globe reported.

Similar images are emerging across the country as food banks nationwide are scrambling to keep up with demand amid the coronavirus pandemic. A perfect storm – record demand, volunteer shortages, and now food supply issues due to panic buying – has put food banks across the country into overdrive.

The need for emergency food aid has exploded in recent weeks due to the coronavirus epidemic.

The need for emergency food aid has exploded in recent weeks due to the coronavirus epidemic. (William Luther/The San Antonio Express-News via AP)

"We have a surge in demand unlike anything we've seen in the history of food banking in America," said Katie Fitzgerald, executive vice president of Feeding America, a network of about 200 food banks. "People lost their livelihood overnight and are needing desperately to make sure that they can feed themselves and their children."

A Feeding America survey of its foodbanks found more than 98 percent have seen a surge in demand – with 59% reporting a decrease in inventory.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., people who have never sought assistance before are coming in droves.

"These are people who are now in need of basic resources, people who've never had to turn to us before," said Sophie Moore of the Chatanooga Food Bank. "They may never have even known that we existed."

Feeding America estimates at least 17.1 million Americans could need food assistance due to COVID-19.

Feeding America estimates at least 17.1 million Americans could need food assistance due to COVID-19.

As food banks struggle to feed as many people as possible, they are now feeling the ripple effects of the panic buying that cleaned grocery stores out over the past few weeks.

"People were buying five bags of rice and twelve boxes with pasta to make sure that they can stay home and stay safe," said Samantha Retamar, of the Philadelphia-based food bank Philabundance. "Manufacturers didn't supply that amount of food for that amount of outtake. So they're having trouble keeping up with that to the point that it's not that they have extra food. They have to make that food label, that food shipped, that food."

Although as grocery store shelves are slowly replenished, food banks are actually discouraging the donation of food.

How to Help 

Kyle Waide, president of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said that with fears of individual donations being contaminated, the most useful thing your local food bank could use right now is money.

"We can turn the dollar you spend on a can of food into about nine cans of food and really make it go farther," Waide said. "It just allows us to control the inventory much more closely and protect our staff in a way that our food drives would expose them to other kinds of risk."

Waide said even in normal times, food banks can stretch your dollar further to buy what they need in bulk directly from suppliers.

In Philly, Moore is encouraging virtual food drives, which would allow them to buy food that might otherwise spoil.

We can turn the dollar you spend on a can of food into about nine cans of food and really make it go farther.— Kyle Waide, president of the Atlanta Community Food Bank

"We want them to stay safe and not have to go search for empty shelves at the grocery stores right now," said Moore "We encouraging monetary donations or maybe virtual food drives, which is an awesome option that you can do online and purchase not just canned items, but perishable items too."

One resource to find your local food bank is FeedingAmerica.org.

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