Omicron wave causes US food banks to scramble for volunteers


By Ashraf Khalil | Related press

WASHINGTON — Food banks around the country are experiencing a severe volunteer shortage as the omicron variant scares people away from their regular shifts, and companies and schools regularly provide groups Large volunteers are canceling their participation because of virus concerns.

The end result in many cases is a dramatic increase in spending by food banks at a time when they are dealing with higher food costs due to inflation and supply chain issues.

“Food banks rely on volunteers. That’s how we keep costs low,” said Shirley Schofield, CEO of the Northern Alabama Food Bank. “The work is still done but at a much higher cost.”

The extent of the problem was highlighted last week during the national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when many food banks have traditionally held large volunteer runs as part of a day of service.

Michael Altfest, community engagement director for the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, California, calls it “our biggest volunteer event of the year.”

But many food banks have chosen to cancel their plans this year or continue with numbers that are completely lower than in pre-pandemic years.

Altfest says his food bank’s King’s Day event drew 73 people spread over two shifts, while previous years had attracted more than 200 people with all volunteer slots booked before Day One new Year. The food bank did not attempt to host an event last year.

In Tallahassee, Florida, plans for a volunteer-led holiday event were abruptly canceled when all volunteers dropped out. Schofield said executives at her food bank in Huntsville, Alabama, are debating whether to cut their mobile pantry distribution because they simply don’t have enough boxes. Volunteer packaged food for distribution.

Volunteer shortages are not uncommon.

Michael Manning of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank in Louisiana said his volunteer numbers remained strong and his MLK Day event went as normal with two shifts of more than 50 people.

But several food banks have reported a similar move: minimal volunteers for most of 2021, then spiked last fall through November and December before falling off the cliff in December. January.

Food banks often employ volunteers to sort through donations and pack boxes of ready-made merchandise for distribution. Ordinarily arrangements were made for local companies or schools to send in large groups of volunteers, but that left the system vulnerable as those organizations withdrew all at once.

At Big Bend food bank’s Second Harvest in Tallahassee, Florida, the number of volunteers remained solid thanks to the omicron increase. But CEO Monique Van Pelt said she was forced to cancel her MLK Day plans because all the volunteers were from a single corporate partner who “didn’t think that getting together as a group was one of the most important things to do.” Such a narrow area is safe.”

Jamie Sizemore planned for 54 volunteers from three corporate groups at the Feeding America food bank, Kentucky’s Heartland in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. But two groups canceled and the third group sent less than half of the promised amount.

“We tried to select a few individuals at the last minute from a total of 12 volunteers for the day,” says Sizemore, chief executive officer. She added that a permanent team of eight regularly assigned Kentucky National Guardsmen helps fill volunteer gaps.

Even outdoor volunteer work, which seems less risky than warehouse work, is affected.

In Irvine, California, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County launched an ambitious farm 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 time to harvest. The plan was conceived with the intention of employing up to 300 volunteers per week, organized in groups from corporate partners such as Disney. But most of the cooperative organizations have suspended their volunteering activities amid the omicron rise.

“It was a disappointment because it was such a great outdoor experience,” said Claudia Keller, CEO of the food bank. “We think this is a short term thing. We know many volunteers who are trying little by little to get out there. “

The sudden absence of a volunteer workforce leaves most food banks with a more expensive option. When the farm lacks volunteers, salaried workers are hired.

At the Capital Regional Food Bank in Washington, DC, CEO Radha Muthiah had to order pre-packaged trucks of mixed goods for distribution because there weren’t enough volunteers to pack.

“When it’s prepackaged, that tends to increase the price significantly,” Muthiah said.

A truck with product on pallets costs around $9,000, but a truck with ready-to-deliver care packages can cost between $13,000 and $18,000, she said.

Beyond the financial costs, some executives point to a more subtle impact.

“Volunteering is more than just packing boxes,” says Schofield, from the Alabama food bank. “It builds camaraderie and a sense of community. It is a sign of a healthy community in general. “ Omicron wave causes US food banks to scramble for volunteers

Huynh Nguyen

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