Too many Americans are poor

Corona crisis exacerbates poverty : Millions are starving in the US - food banks have to distribute food

At ten o'clock sharp, the soldier wearing a face mask steps aside and clears the way. The caravan starts moving. The cars roll up slowly, the Chevrolets, Hondas, Jeeps, Toyotas. Always in pairs they drive past the row of helpers in yellow protective vests until the one in front is asked to stop. As in a choreography, the trunk opens at the same time, most of them automatically. While the engines continue to run, the helpers load the waiting boxes, always three boxes per car. In the meantime the rain has started, but hardly anyone here cares. When you have finished loading, you raise one arm and hold your thumb in the air. Then the cars keep rolling. No hectic, hardly any noise, the check-in only takes a few seconds, then the whole thing starts all over again.

It will go on for two hours on this cold, rainy Friday, then the caravan will have disbanded and only a few cars will drive up. The big rush is over, even if the Food Bank is still open until 1 p.m. 803 vehicles will then have received food rations, 2409 boxes with approximately 27 tons of food. It would have been enough for 1,000 vehicles. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank did a great job. And this work is urgently needed. Because the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic hit the USA harder than many other countries.

Meals are now canceled in many families

More than 33 million people in the United States have re-applied for unemployment benefits since the crisis began. The unemployment rate has now skyrocketed to 14.7 percent. One in seven working Americans currently has no job. It could be a lot more, they say - the systems are slow to operate as the data from the individual states need to be collated. Many of those affected have not taken precautions: Even before the economic crisis that followed the epidemic, four out of ten adults would have been overwhelmed by unexpected expenses of 400 dollars due to a lack of reserves, according to the Federal Reserve.

In addition, there are still problems with the disbursement of state support. Many are still waiting for their unemployment benefit even though they are entitled to it. There is also a problem with sending the checks approved by Congress for $ 1,200. Suddenly, many Americans are confronted for the first time with the question of where to get the money to support their families and themselves - and that in one of the richest countries in the world.

In a study published last Wednesday by the Brookings Institution in Washington, 17.4 percent of mothers with children up to the age of twelve said they currently lack the money to adequately feed their offspring. Study leader Lauren Bauer described in the "New York Times" that now in many families smaller portions are on the table and many children have to skip meals. With the school closings, many children will no longer have breakfast and lunch, food that they previously received free of charge or subsidized.

Every seventh American uses food banks

So the food banks have suddenly moved to the center of American society. They have existed in the USA since the middle of the last century: charitable distribution centers where donated food is collected and stored. This food is made available to local food distributors, such as tables where families in need can provide themselves with food.

The first of these centers was founded by John van Hengel in 1967 with St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, Arizona. A woman had told him that behind supermarkets she would find enough disposed of food to feed her ten children. Van Hengel came up with the idea of ​​creating a system with which surplus food could be passed on to those in need. The demand was great and more and more food banks were opened. Van Hengel created a nationwide network that was named Feeding America in 1979. It grew further during the recession of the 1980s, at a time when social spending was slashed under President Ronald Reagan. Today "Feeding America" ​​is the largest food bank network in the USA with more than 200 food banks and 60,000 food banks.

[All current developments as a result of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here in our news blog. At this point we will keep you up to date on developments in Berlin in particular.]

The need is great, even without a pandemic: According to the organization, on average one in seven Americans turns to the network. In 2019, 37 million people in the country were at risk of hunger, according to the US Department of Agriculture; Feeding America provided a total of 4.2 billion meals. Since the beginning of the Corona crisis in March, 98 percent of the food banks have reported an increased need. The network has since served more than 42 million kilograms of food - nearly 80 million meals. It is a completely new situation even for institutions that have experienced a crisis.

Lisa Scales, President of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, is standing under a tarpaulin in the Pittsburgh Penguins parking lot on this gray Friday morning. The fans of the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2017, the world's most important ice hockey trophy, usually park in front of the city's skyline. The arena's 10.5 hectare park areas are currently empty, and the corona protective measures have also paralyzed professional sports.

"I do not want to talk. I'm only here to get food "

Scales watches as her 50 volunteers fill the cars. Every car receives the same amount of food, no matter how many people sit in it or wait at home: a carton with frozen food (meat, poultry and fish), one with dry food like pasta, sauces, long-life milk, beans, tuna, rice as well one with fresh vegetables and fruits. The food from the three boxes should be enough for 30 to 40 meals, i.e. five to seven days with three meals a day for a family of three.

You buy a large part of the products yourself, explains Brian Gulish, deputy spokesman for the Food Bank. “In normal times, we spend $ 500,000 to $ 600,000 on this every two months.” In March and April it was $ 1.7 million, about three times as much. The demand has increased, at the same time supermarkets donate less food. To this end, the Department of Agriculture launched a $ 19 billion aid program in mid-April, of which three billion will be used to pay for food that is distributed through food banks and other aid organizations.

The usual proof that someone is in need is not required - as in the case of natural disasters. This makes it easier for those affected to accept help. “You don't have to answer any questions when you come here,” says Gulish. After all, 75 percent of people who looked for food supplies on the organization's website were their first time on the site. Not everyone likes to talk about their plight. An older man, who waits in the parking lot for his turn, says: “I don't want to talk. I'm only here to get food. "

She is not ashamed - everyone needs help

Dorothy neither wants to give her last name nor to be photographed. But she rolls down her window and tells why she parks here in line. The 34-year-old said she lost her job in January and currently has no chance of finding a new one. As a trained biochemist, she knows how difficult the next few months will be. "It will take a while before a vaccine will be developed." She lives with her parents, both of whom are already in their 70s and are therefore particularly at risk. Dorothy supplies them with groceries, goes to the pharmacy or the drugstore if that has to be. Since money is running out, the African American is now using a food counter for the first time. She doesn't feel ashamed about it. "Everyone needs help from time to time, that's why I'm happy to lend myself here."

Two rows down, Ron Alvarez is also patiently waiting for the moment when he can drive off. The 49-year-old, who came to the United States from Guatemala in the mid-1980s and has long been an American citizen, drove through the greater Pittsburgh area for Uber passengers until the crisis. He has been unemployed since March 20th - but has not yet received a dollar of unemployment benefits. "After all, the check for $ 1200 has already arrived," says Alvarez. That helped for a while, and you can also eat rice and beans, he says with a laugh. But now the money is out. “I only have $ 20 in the bank account. Thank goodness there are the Food Banks. ”This is also the first time he has made use of this help.

Alvarez ’situation is tense for several reasons. He himself has diabetes, he says, his wife only finished cancer treatment in January and the older of his two sons has asthma. A risk family. Even if the economy picks up again, it will probably be too dangerous for him to drive Uber again. But now, in this crisis, find a new job? And then also one that he can take care of from home? Alvarez is skeptical, but he wants to remain optimistic. “I saw that IBM was looking for people to be trained in cybersecurity. I'll have a look at that. "

His advantage, he says, is that he has often seen dramatic upheavals. “A lot of people are poor in Guatemala. On the other hand, we're fine here in America. And most importantly: Here I have the choice of choosing what I want to do. ”The engine of the neighboring car starts and it starts. Alvarez says goodbye calmly, nobody seems impatient here.

Volunteers, police, soldiers - everyone helps

This is probably also due to the ingenious system. It is the third time that food will be served on the ice hockey arena site. The first time at the end of March, 1,300 cars came, says food bank spokesman Gulish, and 400 more had to be sent away. Things are now going more smoothly. The waiting vehicles - you are not allowed to come on foot - have been distributed over three parking areas so that there are no major traffic jams. Traffic is handled by the police, and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard is helping out on the park. Up to 1000 vehicles can be processed per day.

"In the beginning, the first ones showed up at 6 a.m., four hours before the issue began," says Gulish. That has changed, word has got around that there is enough for everyone. The financial situation has also eased in some cases because state aid has arrived.

The need is great - and the aid organization is preparing to ensure that there will be no relaxation anytime soon. Head of Scales assumes that the increased demand will also show up in the next twelve to 18 months. “Even if the economy starts up again now, it will not be the same as before.” For example, the hospitality industry would continue to be affected because fewer people travel or eat out and thus fewer employees are needed.

[With the “Twenty / Twenty” newsletter, our US experts accompany you every Thursday on your way to the presidential election. You can register for free here: tagesspiegel.de/twentytwenty]

Since the beginning of March they have been preparing "that something big is coming," says Scales. The first Covid-19 cases in Pittsburgh were recorded in the week starting March 16. The Food Bank's first big food distribution took place two days later - in the parking lot of its own distribution center. The images of the mile-long backlog of vehicles along the Monongahela River went around the world. A million people looked at the drone recordings on the net, which did not at all fit in with the image of the “greatest nation on earth” that President Donald Trump always conjures up. "The next day the local police chief paid me a visit," says Scales. “I thought he was going to scold. But he said, 'We want to help you deal with traffic. We know how great the need is. ‘"

The Food Bank has been part of Pittsburgh for a long time: since 1980, since the steel crisis, when hundreds of thousands lost their jobs and no longer knew how to take care of their families. Crises are nothing new in the city, which is picturesquely situated between three rivers.

The food supply is reaching its limits

Scales herself has also seen a lot of suffering: She was in New Orleans in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit the city so badly. And she was in New York after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. “Food banks are made for disasters.” But the current situation is unique, a global crisis. “Usually the food banks start working after something happens. Hurricanes, earthquakes and forest fires are regionally limited disasters, and help can then be quickly sent from outside to the crisis center. Here we are at work, while the crisis is developing and growing at the same time everywhere - and with limited resources. "

She has just found out, Scales reports, that 21 truckloads of groceries are delayed, sometimes up to four weeks. “We still have enough groceries for the next two to four weeks, but I'm worried about the time after that.” In addition, the prices for meat, for example, went up. Scales can confirm firsthand reports that America's food supply is reaching its limits.

Despite everything, the atmosphere in the parking lot is good. Some drivers honk their horns when they pass the volunteers, a token of gratitude for the uncomplicated help. You can only guess the smile of the helpers under their face mask.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page