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Minivans at the Food Pantry: Meet America’s New Needy

“Folks who had really good jobs and were able to pay their bills and never knew how to find us,” said Ephie Johnson, the president and chief executive of Neighborhood Christian Centers. “A lot of people had finally landed that job, were helping their family, and able to do a little better, and then this takes you out.” In her 30 years of charitable work in Memphis, she said, “I have not seen it quite like this.”

In one week in late July nearly 30 million Americans reported they did not have enough to eat, according to a government survey. Among households with children, one in three reported insufficient food, the highest level in the nearly two decades the government has tracked hunger in America, said Lauren Bauer, who studies food insecurity at the Brookings Institution.

“What’s happening with children right now is unprecedented in modern times,” Ms. Bauer said.

As painful as the summer was, as difficult as it became for so many families to afford decent food, the situation could get worse, especially with unemployment benefits drying up for many people and Washington unable to agree on a new stimulus package. Then there is the virus itself: It could surge back in the fall and shutter businesses again, putting more people out of work and into the food lines.

Feeding America, which oversees the country’s largest network of food banks and pantries, has projected that up to 54 million Americans could be food insecure before the end of the year, a 46 percent increase since the pandemic began. The group has reported a 60 percent increase in the number of people it serves, and said that four in 10 people are first-time recipients of food aid.

During the pandemic, Feeding America’s volunteers have surveyed recipients, sending dispatches back to headquarters that read like raw intelligence reports from a nation in need.

“It was obvious that several people who came through our drive-through mobile pantry had never been to a pantry before,” reads one account from Terre Haute, Ind.


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