Stocking the Pantries

Stocking the Pantries

The sudden surge in unemployment has led to a sharp increase in demand for food from organizations serving the less fortunate.

by scott barker • March 27, 2020
Matt Duncan waits his turn to pick up food at the FISH Hospitality Pantry on West Scott Avenue on Thursday.

About 1 p.m. on Thursday, Matt Duncan stood in the sunshine with a folded shopping bag in his hand, waiting his turn to pick up food at the FISH Hospitality Pantry on West Scott Avenue in Happy Holler. About 50 people were in line ahead of him, only a few practicing the social distancing recommended by health officials, to pick up food for themselves and their families.

New unemployment claims in Tennessee soared from 1,347 to 39,096 in one week.

A factory worker, Duncan has been unemployed for a while, but had a promising job interview scheduled for a machine operator’s position when the coronavirus hit. “They actually canceled the interview because they knew they were going to lay people off,” he said. “I’m still looking, but it’s getting a little tight.”

Things have gotten tight enough for Duncan to come to FISH for a bagful of sustenance. Many more have come to the same decision. Some agencies are feeding more than twice the usual number of people.

According to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, new unemployment claims soared a staggering 1,347 percent to 39,096 — more than the combined populations of Maryville and Alcoa — for the week ending March 21. Only 2,702 initial claims were filed the previous week.

And that number doesn’t include the unemployment claims filed this week in the aftermath of state and local orders closing nonessential businesses. Nationwide, 3.3 million people filed new unemployment claims last week, a number roughly equal to Tennessee’s entire workforce.

With unemployment claims skyrocketing from business closures due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, local food banks and pantries are seeing a stampede of people in need.

Second Harvest Food Bank was staring at the possibility of exhausting its one-month stockpile of food before the BlueCross Foundation stepped in with financial support. Some food pantries have closed because of fears that volunteers could become infected.

“I have been doing this 27 years and it has never been like this ever, ever, ever,” said Elaine Streno, executive director of Second Harvest, which distributes food to pantries across the region.

Rising Unemployment

Knox and surrounding counties are just now seeing cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, reported the county had a total of 28 cases on Thursday. Six of those patients have recovered enough to end isolation, while five are being treated in area hospitals.

Eighteen more cases have been reported in six of the eight adjacent counties, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. The cases in Knox and adjacent counties account for a mere 3.8 percent of the 957 presumed positive test results in Tennessee so far. Three Tennesseans have died.

Knox County is under a Safer at Home order, which mandates that nonessential businesses shut their doors. The business closures here and elsewhere have already devastated the region’s economy. County unemployment application figures aren’t available yet, but the 16-county East Workforce Development Area centered on Knoxville saw about 6,800 new claims filed last week.

“We are in unprecedented times, setting records we don’t want to set,” said Jeff McCord, Tennessee Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development.

The maximum unemployment benefit in Tennessee is $275 a week before federal taxes are deducted. Many of the newly unemployed, especially those who have been subsisting paycheck to paycheck when they did have a job, are likely to turn to food pantries for groceries. 

Meeting the Need

Second Harvest supplies food to more than 550 shelters, pantries and churches in 18 East Tennessee counties. The organization already provides 16.7 million meals annually to an average of 143,000 people a month.

To help Second Harvest meet the surge in demand, the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation announced a $500,000 donation to the organization this week as part of a $3.25 million cash infusion for Tennessee food banks.

“Every day, families count on local food banks for help — and that’s especially true now,” said Dr. JD Hickey, chairman of the foundation. “Tennesseans can get through these challenging times by coming together, and we’re expanding our support for food banks statewide as another way to bring peace of mind to our neighbors.”

For Second Harvest, the gift means the organization can keep up with the demand. “This is the biggest operating gift we’ve received since we started in 1982,” Streno said. “We didn’t know what we were going to do.”

Streno said her supply chain is strong, so the primary obstacle for obtaining enough food for the influx of individuals and families has been having enough money to restock the warehouse. “I cannot thank BlueCross BlueShield enough,” she said.

In addition to the BlueCross BlueShield Foundation gift, Second Harvest has received two donations of $50,000 each in recent days. Streno said the overwhelming demand for food has forced the organization to revamp all eight of its feeding programs.

Second Harvest needs people to replenish its supply of volunteers as well, Streno said. Many older volunteers, who are more at-risk for severe cases of COVID-19, are staying home to avoid contamination

Like Second Harvest, The Love Kitchen in East Knoxville is seeing a dropoff in volunteers just as demand is increasing. Executive Director Patrick Riggins said volume is up two to three times above normal.

“We’re seeing a lot more families show up now, when we normally have more individuals,” he said. “Luckily, we’ve had a lot of support from the community.”

The Love Kitchen was founded by the late Helen and Ellen Ashe, twin sisters who became beloved figures in Knoxville, in 1986. Since their deaths — Helen in 2015 at age 85 and Ellen two years later at age 87 — their mission has continued.

Prior to the advent of the coronavirus, The Love Kitchen served 500 people each week in its dining room and delivered about 3,000 meals weekly to homebound residents. Like commercial restaurants, Love Kitchen has stopped dine-in service. “We’re not feeding anybody inside right now,” Riggins said. “We’ll hand out meals to people who come down here.”

In addition to The Love Kitchen, FISH and other places that typically provide sustenance to those in need, Knox County Schools is providing free meals for children to take home at schools throughout the county. 

According to Carly Harrington, the school system’s public affairs director, 5,893 children and teenagers received meals on Wednesday, up from 3,905 on Monday. Each child receives two meals per day, so the school system has served 39,192 meals so far this week.

The coronavirus response meal program is open to all children, regardless of income. Wednesday’s total makes up only about 10 percent of the students who attend Knox County Schools, however, and 28 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals.

The Days to Come

Gov. Bill Lee recently signed an executive order that loosened some of the unemployment application rules and allows benefit payments to begin flowing immediately instead of being delayed for a week as the program worked before the crisis. The Department of Labor and Workforce Development has reassigned employees so claims can be processed faster and extended hours.

On Wednesday at his daily coronavirus briefing, Lee announced he had formed the Tennessee Talent Exchange with leaders in the grocery, retail, convenience store and hospitality industries. “The goal of the exchange is to match Tennesseans who are out of work because of COVID-19 with companies that are currently experiencing a surge in business and making immediate hires,” he said.

The employment situation won’t improve in the near term, however. Federal aid for individuals and businesses will take some time to arrive, and many companies in Tennessee continue to shed jobs. “We know that (unemployment) actually is going to increase as the weeks move ahead,” Lee said.

Local organizations with missions to feed the less fortunate say they’re ready to help as always.

“Everybody feels out of control, and they like to have a feeling of control,” Streno said. “We are here, and we are here to feed this community.”