PENNSYLVANIA (WHTM) — The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity in Pennsylvania, but local organizations are stepping up to combat hunger during this Hunger Action Month and throughout the rest of the year.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank served around 140,000 people each month. That number quickly increased to about 200,000 individuals at the height of the pandemic, said Amy Hill, director of community engagement and advocacy for the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.

“I think probably when history looks back at this pandemic, the second story that’s going to be stuck in people’s minds [will be] the long lines of people waiting for food assistance,” Hill said. “Many, many people who had never imagined that they would need any kind of food assistance overnight were left without an income.”

Stimulus checks, unemployment benefits, and SNAP benefits have helped families get food on the table since that early surge of the pandemic, Hill said, and food banks and local organizations stepped up to help fill in the gaps.

Hill explained that the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank serves as a hub collecting donations and providing supplies for local organizations, which then directly distribute food to community members. Pandemic safety necessitated changes in the ways local organizations distributed this food.

Because indoor gatherings and crowds of people increased the risk of transmitting the coronavirus, many organizations shifted to a drive-up distribution system, Hill said. Community members pulled up in their cars, and then volunteers would put the groceries into their vehicles — minimal contact, minimal risk of transmission.

“[This system] was able to get literally millions of pounds of food out to people in need with minimum exposure to COVID,” Hill said.

Operations have changed back at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, as well, with a shift from smaller canned food drives to monetary donations to best utilize volunteers’ time and maximize the amount of food they can get out to the community.

“It requires a lot of labor-intensive work to sort through [these food donations] and make sure that the food is still good and that type of thing, and so when we had to create more social distance for our volunteers, we really need the help more in packing boxes full of food in bulk quantities rather than sorting through a little bit of food here and there,” Hill explained.

That does not mean the friendly competition and individual efforts of small-scale drives for the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank are over, though. Some of the food bank’s local partners still accept food donations, but the food bank itself is turning to virtual drives.

People can “shop” for their favorite items on the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank’s website as part of an ongoing virtual food drive, and then the food bank will take the monetary value of those donations and use it to provide food and resources for its local partner organizations.

The food bank’s website states that $1 donated can help provide six meals for community members. The money can also help its local partners expand their cold storage space, for example, enabling them to store and distribute items like fresh produce.

Financial donations also help the food bank respond to pandemic-induced disruptions in the market, adjusting to find the most cost-effective ways to get communities what they need, Hill said.

Although charitable organizations have adapted to serve Central Pennsylvanians through the pandemic and government programs have provided financial assistance, Hill does not think the area is out of the woods quite yet.

“Historically, when changes in the economy affect people and their food security, it can take a long time for people to really recover,” Hill said.

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“The pandemic shined a spotlight on something we’ve already known, which is that lots of people are one paycheck away from needing assistance,” Hill added, “so I think we have a lot of work to do, not just in, how do we shore up our charitable food response to these kinds of situations, but how do we address hunger at its core? How can we help people be a little more resilient to these kinds of changes?”

Hill said individuals can help by learning about hunger and the needs in their communities, volunteering with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank or other local organizations, making financial donations to the food bank, and speaking about hunger with their communities and their politicians.