By Ashraf Khalil, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Food banks across the country are experiencing a severe shortage of volunteers as the omicron variant scares people away from their regular shifts, and businesses and schools that regularly provide large groups of volunteers are canceling their participation for fear of virus.
The end result in many cases has been a significant increase in food bank spending at a time when they are already facing higher food costs due to inflation and supply chain issues.
“Food banks rely on volunteers. That’s how we keep costs down,” said Shirley Schofield, CEO of the Food Bank of North Alabama. “The work is still done but at a much higher cost.”
The extent of the problem was highlighted last week on the national Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, when many food banks have traditionally held mass volunteer drives as part of a day of service. .
Michael Altfest, director of community engagement for the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, Calif., called it “without fail, our biggest volunteer event of the year.”
But many food banks have opted to cancel their plans this year or have continued with drastically lower numbers than in pre-pandemic years.
Altfest said its food bank’s King Day event drew 73 people over two shifts, while previous years drew more than 200 people with all volunteer slots booked before New Year’s Day. The food bank did not attempt an event last year.
In Tallahassee, Florida, plans for a volunteer-run holiday event were abruptly canceled when all the volunteers dropped out. Schofield said leaders at his food bank in Huntsville, Alabama, are debating whether to cut back on their mobile pantry distributions because they simply don’t have enough boxes of food packed by volunteers at distribute.
The shortage of volunteers is not universal.
Michael Manning of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank in Louisiana said his volunteer numbers remained high and his MLK Day event ran smoothly with two teams of more than 50 people.
But several food banks reported similar dynamics: minimal volunteers for most of 2021, then a surge last fall through November and December before falling off a cliff in January.
Food banks typically use volunteers to sort donations and pack boxes of ready-made produce for distribution. It is common to have local businesses or schools send large groups of volunteers, but this has left the system vulnerable to these institutions all pulling out at once.
At Big Bend Food Bank’s second harvest in Tallahassee, Florida, volunteer numbers remained strong thanks to the push from omicron. But CEO Monique Van Pelt said she was forced to cancel her plans for MLK Day because the volunteers were all from a single corporate partner who “didn’t think it was safe for them to come together. as a group in such restricted premises”.
Jamie Sizemore had scheduled 54 volunteers from three business groups at the Feeding America, Kentucky’s Heartland food bank in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. But two groups canceled and the third sent less than half of its promised number.
“We managed to pick up some last minute people for a total of 12 volunteers for the day,” said Sizemore, the general manager. She added that a long-term contingent of eight assigned Kentucky National Guardsmen frequently helps fill volunteer gaps.
Even outdoor volunteer work, with seemingly less risk of exposure than warehouse work, has suffered.
In Irvine, California, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County has launched an ambitious agricultural project on 45 acres of land provided by the University of California. So far, 22 acres have been planted with cabbage and broccoli, and it’s harvest time. The plan was designed with the intention of using up to 300 volunteers per week, organized into corporate partner groups such as Disney. But most partner organizations suspended their volunteer campaigns amid the omicron surge.
“It’s a disappointment because it’s a great outdoor experience,” said Claudia Keller, CEO of the food bank. “We are crossing our fingers that this is a short-term thing. We know that many volunteers are chomping at the bit to get there.
The sudden lack of volunteer labor is forcing most food banks to make more expensive choices. When the farm lacks volunteers, paid laborers are employed.
At the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, DC, CEO Radha Muthiah has to order truckloads of prepackaged boxes of mixed produce to distribute because there aren’t enough volunteers to pack.
“When prepackaged, it tends to drive the price up significantly,” Muthiah said.
A truckload of products on pallets costs about $9,000, but a truckload of ready-to-distribute care packages can cost between $13,000 and $18,000, she said.
Besides the financial costs, some leaders point to a more subtle impact.
“Volunteering is about more than packing the boxes,” said Schofield of the Alabama Food Bank. “It creates camaraderie and a sense of community. It is a sign of a healthy community as a whole.
Vince Hall, government relations manager for Feeding America, which coordinates the work of more than 200 food banks, said the number of volunteers partly reflects emotional fatigue and long-term exhaustion. As the nation endures a second pandemic winter and the omicron variant undoes some of the progress people have expected from the vaccine, longtime volunteers are running out.
“These people who are really part of the foundation of our volunteer workforce, they’ve been doing that since March 2020,” Hall said. “It has an emotional impact on people.”