More people are struggling to feed their families, and food pantries are struggling to keep up

Dozens of people line up outside the Broadmoor Church in New Orleans for the Broadmoor Improvement Association’s monthly food pantry. Standing six feet apart, participants wait their turn to show their ID in exchange for a box of groceries. 

Because she has no income, the groceries are critical for Maria, who did not give her real name because of her immigration status. Like tens of thousands of people across New Orleans, Maria relies on food assistance to feed her family. As a non-citizen, she doesn’t qualify for unemployment benefits or food stamps. 

“It’s kind of difficult because we are without a job right now. But I always find places we can go. I really like the vegetables, the beans and oil, we use stuff like that. That’s a good help,” Maria said.

The Broadmoor food pantry is one of dozens of food hubs in the city that are partnered with Second Harvest, the main anti-hunger network in southern Louisiana. Second Harvest gets food from the USDA, as well as donations from grocery stores and food drives, then funnels it to partnering organizations to distribute at the community level.

Chris Key fills an order in the warehouse at Second Harvest Food Bank, which distributes hot meals and food to food banks across Louisiana. New Orleans, Louisiana. April 10, 2020. (Ben Depp/National Geographic Society)

Pantry coordinator Bethanie Mangigian said they are doing everything they can to reach people in the neighborhood.

“We’ve galvanized this response to go from serving 500 people a month to this month, only half way through, over a thousand. So we’re just seeing those numbers skyrocket.

As soon as the pandemic hit, the Broadmoor Improvement Association expanded its food assistance program to include hot meals and home delivery. They hired Spanish translators and organized a phone bank using voter rolls. But they’re still not able to meet the catastrophic level of need. 

“There was someone who came into the pantry today, and we were like, ‘We’re so sorry, we can’t get you another box. Please come back next month.’ And the woman said to me in Spanish, ‘Well, we might not be here next month if we can’t get the box.,’” Mangigian said.

“The system is totally broken. It’s totally insufficient. And that is the ugly side of this.” 

Coronavirus makes a bad problem worse

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Louisiana had one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country, with one in five people at risk of going hungry. Second Harvest projects that will increase to one in three people. 

In the month following business shutdowns in Louisiana, there was a 400 percent increase in applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps, over the previous month. And emergency calls for food aid to the United Way more than doubled compared to this time last year. 

Jay Vise from Second Harvest said this hunger crisis is unprecedented.

“In terms of need, the word overwhelming is a good way to put it. We are doing our best, but the overall need is so far still outstripping what we can provide at the moment.”

National Guard are deployed in New Orleans and some are working at Second Harvest Food Bank packing food relief boxes. New Orleans, Louisiana. April 10, 2020. (Ben Depp/National Geographic Society)

Second Harvest has ramped up food production by more than 50 percent to assist local pantries and serve the thousands of people that show up to its drive-through food banks. But its efforts are limited because of dwindling food donations and supply chain disruptions.

“With stores having limited supplies, there’s not a lot they can donate to us. Right now we’re trying to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars of food. But it’s just not there right now,” Vise said.

The network of local food providers is starting to crumble under pressure

Sarah Pritchard, the director of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, said the current climate makes it hard for community food assistance programs to survive. While they get some food from Second Harvest, pantries must raise their own funds to cover operational costs, which have increased tremendously. 

“One of the things that we are coming up against is the sustainability of all of the additional resources that we’ve leveraged to respond to this crisis moment and recognizing this is not going to be a five-week emergency, this is going to be a long-term crisis,” Pritchard said.

Second Harvest estimates that between one-third and one-half of all of its partnering pantries have had to close down because of financial problems and volunteer shortages.

Sankofa, which runs a food pantry in the Lower Ninth Ward, feels the strain after expanding from 200 participating families to 600. Founder Rashida Jones can no longer get fresh produce, which is essential, she said, because Sankofa operates in one of the city’s largest food deserts.

“You have to look at the chain in how the produce goes to the pantry. It comes from grocery stores and then it goes to the food bank and by the time the produce comes to us, it’s no longer good. It’s perishable,” Jones said.

Familias Unidas en Accion is another pantry on the brink. Leticia Casildo co-founded the small community group to provide transitional support to immigrant families in New Orleans. Now the organization is feeding hundreds of undocumented restaurant workers who lost their jobs and don’t qualify for government assistance. Casildo says her organization is the only safety net some families have.

“It’s been really hard because the community is large. At this point we have over 480 families. Those families have at least three members and up to nine. The lack of resources is very real. It’s definitely something we’re worried about, not being able to provide for these families,” Casildo said.

the crisis is worsening and underscoring inequities

Without local pantries, food assistance is out of reach for the people that need it most, especially those who lack transportation. That’s according to Elisa Muñoz-Miller, executive director of the New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee.

“Now there’s less busses, there’s less street cars, and we already have a huge food desert issue, and so getting to them has always been a challenge and now it’s exacerbating existing inequities,” she said.

There’s no way to treat the current health crisis without also addressing the food crisis, Muñoz-Miller said.

“The majority of the people who are dying or who have the cases are African American New Orleanians, and those are also the folks who have the rates of food insecurity, and now we’re also adding to that,” she said.

Volunteers bag sweet potatoes, purchased from Larry Fontenot of LJ Farms in Washington, Louisiana, at Second Harvest Food Bank. New Orleans, Louisiana. April 10, 2020. (Ben Depp/National Geographic Society)

Mangigian of the Broadmoor Improvement Association said the government needs to do more to close the gaps in the system.

“There was no structure that was really prepared for this, on not just the state level but on the federal level. To me, it can be scaled, but I think we do need the resources, the funding and the backing to make it happen,” she said.

Without additional funds, the fates of many local food programs and the people they serve hang in the balance. 

Casildo said Familias Unidas is relying on donations to keep its doors open, and will do so as long as possible. Because there shouldn’t be so many barriers to food access, she said, especially during a pandemic that has no borders.

Louisiana residents can dial 211 to get information on food assistance programs including local food banks, pantries and meal kitchens. Language translation services are also available.

Photography for this story was funded by the National Geographic Society.