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California Food Banks & The COVID-19 Pandemic

May 27, 2021


In 2020, the California Association of Food Banks’ 41 member food banks responded to an unprecedented demand for food by rapidly redesigning their program delivery models in order to safely increase food distribution and adjust to necessary safety measures. Still, food donations and staffing resources were vastly outpaced by increased demand.

The total food distributed by CAFB member food banks increased by 74% between 2019 and 2020. Direct distribution doubled (101%) between 2019 and 2020.

All member food banks provided direct distribution in 2020, including food banks that were not previously providing direct distribution.

Food donations decreased in 2020. Community food drives and retail donations decreased for more than half of food banks while nearly all significantly increased food purchases.

Even while paid staff increased by 13%, and volunteer hours increased by 63% (including state assets such as the National Guard), increases in paid staff and volunteers were still outpaced by increases in food distribution. In order to reach the 1.1 billion pounds of food, or about 917 million meals delivered by CAFB member food banks, operating costs also rose.

Areas with the largest cost increase were 1) Food Purchasing, 2) Packaging Materials, and 3) Cleaning/Sanitation Supplies.

Populations most commonly given targeted support were children/families with children, older adults, unhoused people, and college students.

Drive-thru and home delivery distributions became commonplace — often meaning decreased opportunity for client choice. In order to meet the moment, food banks had to find ways to distribute food while also ensuring the safety of staff, volunteers, and clients. No longer an option due to COVID-19 safety precautions, farmers market-style “shopping” gave way to pre-packaged boxes of food, and custom online food orders shifted towards a fixed list of items.

Food banks anticipate the effects of COVID-19 on food insecurity to outlast the pandemic, keeping demand dramatically elevated for a long time to come.

71% of food banks expect that their programming and operations will remain changed in some way beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

After the Great Recession, it took nearly 10 years (until 2018) for food insecurity to return to pre-recession levels.


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