Omicron Wave Leaves U.S. Food Banks Scrambling for Volunteers

WASHINGTON — Food banks across the country are experiencing a critical shortage of volunteers as the omicron variant frightens people away from their usual shifts, and companies and schools that regularly supply large groups of volunteers are canceling their participation over virus fears.

Many cases resulted in a substantial increase in the spending of food banks, at a moment when they have already been dealing with rising food costs and issues in their supply chains.

“Food banks rely on volunteers. That’s how we keep the costs low,” said Shirley Schofield, CEO of the Food Bank of North Alabama. “The work still gets done but at a much higher expense.”
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This week, the extent of the crisis was brought to light by Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Many food banks organize mass volunteer drives in conjunction with a day for service.

Michael Altfest, director of community engagement for the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, California, called it “without fail, our biggest volunteer event of the year.”

However, many food banks have decided to either cancel their plans or keep the same number of people as in pre-pandemic times.

Altfest said his food bank’s King Day event drew 73 people spread out over two shifts, when previous years had drawn more than 200 people with all volunteer slots booked up before New Year’s Day. Altfest said that the food bank failed to attempt an event this year.

Tallahassee in Florida cancelled plans to host a volunteer-driven holiday event after all of the volunteers pulled out. Schofield stated that Huntsville’s food bank executives are considering cutting back their distribution of mobile food pantries because there is not enough food to distribute.

There is no shortage of volunteers.

Michael Manning from the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, Louisiana says his volunteer numbers remain strong. He also stated that MLK Day went as planned with only two shifts with more than 50 participants.

However, several food banks reported an identical dynamic: few volunteers in 2021 and then a spike last November through December. Then it was back to zero by January.

Most food banks rely on volunteers to help sort the donations and package ready-made goods for distribution. Although it is typical for schools and local businesses to provide large numbers of volunteers, this has made the system more vulnerable to institutions withdrawing all at once.

The volunteer base at the Second Harvest of the Big Bend food pantry in Tallahassee (Florida) has remained steady despite the omicron increase. But CEO Monique Van Pelt said she was forced to cancel her MLK Day plans because the volunteers all came from a single corporate partner that “didn’t think it was safe for them to gathering as a group in such tight quarters.”

Jamie Sizemore had planned for 54 volunteers from three corporate groups at the Feeding America, Kentucky’s Heartland food bank in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Two groups cancelled and one group sent less than the promised amount.

“We did manage to pick up some last minute individuals for a total of 12 volunteers for the day,” said Sizemore, the executive director. Sizemore said that the long-term volunteer needs are often filled by eight Kentucky National Guardsmen.

Even volunteer work outdoors, which is less risky than work in warehouses, has been affected.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, Irvine, California has begun an ambitious farm project with 45 acres of University of California property. So far, 22 acres have been planted with cabbage and broccoli, and it’s harvest time. It was designed with 300 volunteer volunteers per week in mind, and organized into groups by corporate partners such Disney. The omicron surge has caused most of the partner organizations to suspend their volunteer drives.

“It’s a bummer because it’s a great outdoor experience,” said Claudia Keller, the food bank’s CEO . “We’re crossing our fingers that this is a short-term thing. We know many of the volunteers are chomping at the bit to get out there.”

Most food banks are forced to make more costly choices because of the sudden shortage in volunteer labor. If the farm is short on volunteers, hired laborers will be employed.

At the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., CEO Radha Muthiah has to order truckloads of prepackaged boxes of mixed goods to distribute because there aren’t enough volunteers to pack.

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

A pallet truckload of produce can run about $9,000; however, a container truckload with ready-to–distribute care packs could cost anywhere from $13,000 to $18,000.

Some executives also point to a deeper impact, beyond the obvious financial cost.

“Volunteerism is about more than just getting the boxes packed,” said Schofield, from the Alabama food bank. “It builds camaraderie and a sense of community. It’s a sign of a healthy community at large.”

Vince Hall, government affairs officer of Feeding America who coordinates more than 200 food banks’ work, stated that volunteer numbers partly reflect emotional fatigue over the long-term and exhaustion. The nation is currently experiencing a second outbreak of pandemics and the Omicron variant slows down some progress made by the vaccine. Long-time volunteers are feeling the pinch.

“These people who are really part of the bedrock of our volunteer workforce, They’ve been doing this since March of 2020,” Hall said. “It takes an emotional toll on people.”


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