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Food Stress: A Report from Ground Zero In Louisville's Hunger Relief Efforts

Courtesy Dare to Care

On the final Friday of March, at the end of the second week of the coronavirus shutdowns begun nearly simultaneously by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, I drove up to the Fern Valley Road warehouse of Dare to Care Food Bank. Behind glass doors leading into the organization’s offices, boxes filled with several days’ worth of non-perishable food items sat on a table ready for pickup.

Residents suffering from what hunger advocates call “food insecurity” were welcome to drive up. A volunteer waited inside for a knock on the door, then invited each visitor to enter one at a time and carry away a food-stuffed box. As an add-on each person also received frozen chicken breasts in a plastic bag and a loaf of freshly baked bread donated by Alonzo Lopez, proprietor of the shut down Rosa de Oro Bakery in Jeffersontown. No ID was required; no questions about need were asked.

A young man and woman arrived in a well-kept, decade-old Honda Civic. “Sir, do you know where we pick up the food?” the man politely asked. I pointed him to the glass doors. The couple parked and, each wearing disposable latex gloves, disappeared inside the doors, emerging a few minutes later with a boxful each of provisions.

They spoke in rapid-fire Spanish as they walked past me back to their car. Along the way the woman looked over at me and said, without a touch of accent, “Stay safe.”

I knew she meant it as more than a pleasantry. And so did I when I replied, “You stay safe as well.”

While hospitals and many first responders are on the front lines fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, agencies providing relief for the hungry are straining to offer support service for the rising number of food insecure children, families and seniors in the Louisville area. Dare to Care’s 55,000-square-foot warehouse is ground zero in this battle.

Inside the warehouse, aisles of shelves, rising Costco-style well beyond arm’s reach, were stacked with packaged foods and bags of produce. These nonperishables and slow-to-spoil produce products, moved around by forklift, form the backbone of Dare to Care’s food pantry operation. Containers of canned vegetables, boxes of cereals, canned pasta-based products, soups, potatoes, onions and many other items lined the shelves. A large walk-in cooler and freezer held meats and other perishable items.

Teams of volunteers — assisted by members of the Kentucky National Guard assigned by the governor to the food bank — were assembling emergency food boxes in two or three shifts per day to have on hand as the coronavirus crisis worsened. By early May they had packed 12,000 with enough nonperishable provisions to feed a family of four for four days and distributed 4,000 of them.

Dare to Care partners with approximately 270 agencies — including community centers, shelters, public schools and religious organizations — to provide provisions for many of the Louisville area’s food-insecure individuals. The number in our metro area of the potentially hungry was estimated at 170,000 before the COVID-19 crisis hit. It has been escalating as the virus’ human and economic toll has mounted.

Because grocery distributors and retailers are selling more to people staying at home in recent weeks, they have less to donate to Dare to Care. As a result, the food bank has been forced to buy more of the food it distributes, just as the demand rises due to furloughs and layoffs in the area’s workforce. Donation amounts dropped by between 30 and 50 percent in March and April, according to Stan Siegwald, the director of strategic initiatives. In response, Dare to Care was tapping its financial reserves to keep the supply chain running.

“We have several months of operating expenses as a reserve,” Siegwald said. “Right now our focus is: Let’s get the food we need and get it out the door.”

Getting Food To Those Who Need It

On a typical morning, Neighborhood House would be bustling with senior citizens, preschoolers and others in the area taking advantage of its many programs.  But by late-March, the community center on North 25th Street was empty, closed to the public, and inhabited only by one maintenance worker and two staff persons handing out boxes of food at the front door.

The center serves Portland and surrounding neighborhoods: some of the lowest income areas in Louisville. Neighborhood House partners with Dare to Care to offer a morning food bank Mondays through Fridays. (Hours are expanded on Fridays to also offer food from 2 to 5 p.m.)

Normally, the center asks those requesting a box of provisions to bring a government ID and a current piece of mail to help identify who is from the neighborhood and who might be pointed toward another agency for help. But: “Right now we’re operating with as few restrictions as we can,” said Executive Director Jennie Jean Davidson. No one is turned away.

She showed me the Neighborhood House pantry, a space about the size of a typical bedroom where monthly deliveries from Dare to Care are stored. It looked to be only about one-third full, even though the next scheduled delivery was still two weeks off. “We’re low for this point in the month,” she said. Neighborhood House doubled its order from Dare to Care for April, requesting 9,000 pounds of pantry items. That went up to more than 11,000 pounds for the May order.

Neighborhood House employees placed two boxes on a table in a small vestibule inside the front door. They left the area while a visitor entered from outside, then wiped down the area with a sanitizer after each container was removed and before a new box was set down into its place. Davidson told me output was rising significantly. The center handed out 238 food boxes this April, compared with 174 in April 2019. The number this March was 204.

“We’re giving out a ton of food,” said Davidson. “Ten boxes a day is normal,” she said. “Twenty-five to 27 a day is not normal.”

The day before I visited, the center had handed out 27 boxes.

The center is also part of Dare to Care’s Kids Cafe initiative, where in normal times it offers 150 or more hot meals per weekday in the late afternoon to anyone under age 18. Sandwiches and other bagged meals, prepared in the food bank’s Community Kitchen, are now being handed out the door each day. (This effort is separate from the food for children distributed at schools by Jefferson County Public Schools.)

“We’ve been serving our regulars right now, with a few new people every day. We have a pretty good system,” Davidson said. “We just could not serve hundreds of people. That’s the thing I’m a little bit worried about. We don’t have the storage space and I’m a little worried that if this continues there are going to be more and more people who need this help.”

‘There’s no playbook for this’

I started reporting this story in mid-February, before COVID-19 was considered much of a threat to our lives and livelihoods. Hunger was already a big issue in the community, though, and Dare to Care is the largest player in Louisville’s efforts to help the area’s food insecure residents. An individual is considered food insecure if he or she has limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

According to the organization, between one out of every six or seven people in the Louisville area fits the definition of food insecure. And shockingly, 20% of local kids are classified as such. Equally alarming, according to a 2017 survey by the nonprofit Feeding America, Kentucky has the highest rate of food insecurity for people in their 50s of any state in the U.S., measured at 18.6%. The figure for Louisville was 16% and the national average 11.3%. (People over age 60 can tap more federal aid programs, so studying their rates is less revealing about a region’s hunger issues.)

As Siegwald told me, “One of the challenges in our world is getting people to realize the scale of this issue in normal times.”

Dare to Care, founded in 1969, was on target to distribute more than 24 million pounds of food in 2020 before the virus hit. That figure is sure to escalate dramatically. Siegwald thinks the poundage might increase by as much as 50 percent as the crisis unfolds. Approximately a third of the tonnage is in the form of fresh produce; sizable portions of meat and dairy products are also handed out.

In addition, the agency prepared 250,000 meals last year at its Community Kitchen in Butchertown. From there, it mainly supplied nutritious meals to children after school, then transitioned in the summer to serving meals for children at various distribution points throughout the area. The food bank is currently renovating a former grocery store in Parkland, which with major space upgrades will vastly increase this ability to offer prepared meals. A $7.5 million capital campaign, nearly completed, is funding the expansion. Its major partner in the effort, the Novak Family Foundation, contributed $2.45 million to the expansion.

What seemed two months ago a proactive plan to handle the ongoing hunger problem in metro Louisville had slipped into reactive mode by the end of March. I talked with executive director Brian Riendeau over the phone about the need to reprioritize activities.

“We would anticipate, barring a sudden turnaround and the reopening of businesses, that the need for food assistance is going to grow, and possibly quite severely in the coming weeks,” he said. Dare to Care’s traditional distribution models — sending meals to school or community center sites or stocking pantries inside partner agencies and running its own mobile pantry trucks into underserved areas — faced new pressures in a time of social distancing.

“Typically, we hand out products in bulk,” Riendeau said. “We’re now trying to box all of the food before we distribute it so people can get their food while staying a safe social distance. It’s more labor intensive. It’s a full-on effort to get the volunteers out, and fortunately, the community has been responding marvelously.”

He added, “I don’t know that anyone could have foreseen something of this magnitude and the speed things have unfolded.”

I followed up with another phone call in April. Dare to Care, Riendeau told me, had distributed the “pre-COVID normal” of 2.1 million pounds of food in February. That grew to 2.7 million pounds in March, about a 29 percent increase. Most of the excess came during a spike in demand in the final two weeks of the month. The increased amount distributed remained at about 30 percent during April.

“I’m very concerned about Dare to Care’s ability to meet these higher levels of need that we’re seeing right now and sustaining our ability to service this need if the crisis continues for months and months,” Riendeau said. “Looking out, we don’t anticipate any immediate drop [in need] because after the health crisis subsides we’re going to see a continued economic crisis.

“When people lose their job, they lose their paycheck. And when they lose their paycheck the first thing they encounter is food insecurity.”

He described the coronavirus pandemic as a “game-changer for us.” In March, Dare to Care purchased four tractor-trailer loads of canned and shelf-stable items, in large part to supply the emergency food boxes. Not knowing the course of the pandemic was making budgeting for the future difficult.

“There’s no playbook for this,” said Riendeau. “That’s part of the challenge for Dare to Care and every organization involved in this. The uncertainty makes planning very difficult. How quickly will the number of new cases in our community drop? How quickly will businesses reopen? And importantly, how quickly will people get back to work and start earning a paycheck?”

There were also concerns about disruptions in the food supply chain. According to Siegwald, one truckload of canned vegetables ordered by Dare to Care in March and due in early May had been postponed and was not expected until sometime in July. Meanwhile, coronavirus outbreaks in meatpacking plants threatened the supply of proteins the food bank might receive.

Yet as of early May the remaining emergency food boxes — now 8,000 of them — were stashed away in a warehouse, “like an armory of ammunition to be used later,” Siegwald said. The food bank’s 270 partner agencies were for the most part continuing to get meals out to those in need. No one working for Dare to Care had been diagnosed with the virus. Volunteers continued to sign up and donations large and small were rolling in to help with the increased expenditures. While fears of unmanageability kept Riendeau up at night, a faith in his organization and its supporters was getting him through the day.

“At the end of the day,” Reindeau said, “I’m absolutely confident we’ll get through this. So far, the response from the community has been overwhelming. The community has come forward with financial donations, with food donations and with volunteers in a way that has enabled us, up until now, to stay ahead of this crisis.”

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.