Lexington, Neb., is just one of the many rural communities that has long dealt with food insecurity, but the global pandemic both intensified need in the town of 11,000 residents and presented new challenges in getting people food.
The nationwide hunger rate among small towns was 12.7% in 2018 compared to 10.8% in urban areas. And according to the national nonprofit Feeding America, 87% of U.S counties with the highest rates of food insecurity are rural.
It was no surprise to local nonprofits that COVID-19's arrival in town — and its closures of local schools and businesses — would trigger a sharp spike in hunger. Nearly 16% of residents live below the poverty line.
Responding to the crisis presented its own series of logistical wildcards, but you wouldn't know it by stopping at the town's weekly USDA Farmers to Families Food Box distribution.
Since starting in June, the event has become a well-oiled machine. Each Thursday, local police cordon off several blocks near the edge of town, where roughly 700 cars will line up on their way to a white tent in the parking lot of St. Ann's Parish.
On a sweltering day in late August, Michaela Kopf of Lexington Community Foundation conducted traffic.
She says the boxes have been a hit within the community. In just two months, the foundation has distributed 18,000. Most weeks, the food is gone within an hour.
"Sometimes it's all lined up all the way to highway 30," she remarked. "So there is definitely a need and it has increased since COVID."
The good thing, she says, is how nutritionally diverse the boxes are. "They get one box of produce, a box of dairy, sometimes we get milk, and then one box of proteins," Kopf said. "And it's different every week."
It's not always easy to offer that in pantries, where refrigeration can be scarce.
Rethinking the pantry playbook
Martha Draskovic, who's managed the town's pantry for a decade, says keeping any food stocked was a challenge at the start of the pandemic.
Her troubles started when local schools closed. Children at home and a sudden increase in unemployment made the perfect storm for a surge in demand. "It became clear when my shelves started going empty, so we kind of had to do a new game plan," she said.
People who didn't typically use the pantry or receive food stamps were suddenly in need.
"They weren't eligible for the benefit," she said. "But once they were home for two to three weeks, I mean, they were still out of income, but yet no food."
Empty shelves weren't the only hurdle. At the time, grocery supply chains across the country were faltering. The ripple effect reached Lexington in shortages of pantry staples.
"We were finding that different items are, like, the hot item of the week," said Tammy Jeffs, who manages the Community Action Partnership of Nebraska's community services division. "We had to figure out a way to get the quantity we need without making it so the rest of the town suffers."
Jeffs says it's common for rural grocers to have limited restocking schedules, and get just one truck per week for the entire town.
"If we go in and buy 40 packs of something and all the grocery store's getting is 50 packs, you can definitely tip the need scale ... you've now just sent everybody to your pantry because you bought everything," she said.
Her team ended up on a wild goose chase across central Nebraska for bulk items like peanut butter and pasta. At one point, Jeffs says she purchased $4,000 in food from Amazon.
They also needed to rethink how they typically distribute items. Unlike previous local disasters like the floods of 2019, it was no longer safe to have residents come into the pantry.
Some groups were especially struggling to keep themselves fed, like seniors and workers at the local Tyson Foods meatpacking plant. According to the Two Rivers Public Health District, over 300 food processing workers in Dawson County have contracted COVID-19.
At the peak of Lexington's outbreak in April and May, Draskovic says families were being quarantined with no way to feed themselves. She started delivering the food herself.
"At the beginning, I was like, 'Well, I'm not gonna make a person come out, even though it is curbside," she said. "So I just started taking them to their doorstep."
Draskovic eventually needed to hire a part-time delivery driver to keep up with orders.
A town comes together
The peak in demand has dropped off, she said, and the pantry has been able to save a backstock in food in case Lexington is hit with another large outbreak. That's due in no small part, she says, to an outpouring of support for the pantry by residents.
"We started getting different financial donations, items, businesses started reaching out," she said. "And now we kind of have a backstock, so we're kind of prepared to see if we get that second roundabout."
Orthman Manufacturing, an agriculture equipment company with a plant down the road, is one of the local companies that helped get food to families in need.
Plant manager Scott McKelvey says many local nonprofit leaders or community advocates form a close-knit community. That worked in Lexington's favor when organizations needed to mobilize quickly. In late spring, McKelvey called a friend at the local rotary club to bring Hot Meals USA to town, which has since served 18,000 meals to residents.
"I think with everything else that's going on in the United States right now, this is a feel-good moment," he said. "There's these moments that are going on all over the country to help feed families in need."
Plus, food distributions have never lacked volunteers. Sarah Mariel, who moved from Los Angeles to Lexington two years ago, felt she needed to help.
"As a community, we're one," she reflected. "And if anyone in our community is hurting, then it's the responsibility of the ones who are not to step up."
Mariel recently recovered from her own experience with COVID-19 that landed her in the hospital. After months in isolation, she says she missed her community.
"It needs to be taken seriously, but it doesn't mean that it's easy ... in isolation, you're obviously not connected," she said.
"This is a safe way to be connected, not just to people that I love that are volunteering with me, but also people that I don't know."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
So what does food insecurity look like and feel like for the 1 in 6 people who are projected to experience it this year? We went to find out.
JOHN ROSS: I need one more volunteer to load cars.
MARTIN: On a Friday earlier this month, we visited a food distribution site in Bethesda, Md. It's in Montgomery County, which is one of the wealthiest counties in the country. But as in many places, the need for food has grown since the beginning of the pandemic.
ROSS: People will line up and come right around here. You'll see they've already started lining up.
MARTIN: Before the distribution is set to begin, volunteers like John Ross are unloading some of the more than 200 boxes of food to be handed out. Stacks of bread are piled high on one table, prepared meals and bags of coffee on the other.
ROSS: It's been shocking to, I think, all of us to see this on the ground right here, right now. So we're doing the best we can.
MARTIN: An hour before the event is scheduled to begin, a long line of cars is already winding through the parking lot at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, a volunteer firefighting group that loaned out their space. We met Peter Warner while he was waiting in his car.
PETER WARNER: Last week, I arrived here at 20 minutes after 1. There were a quarter-mile worth of cars in line. I was fortunate to get a spot, and they had almost run out of food 20 minutes after the starting bell. Anyone who got here after 1:30 p.m. was totally out of luck.
MARTIN: Warner arrived early this time. He works part-time at Safeway and receives a monthly disability check of a thousand dollars. That has to cover all of his basics - rent, medicine, keeping his car running and, of course, food.
WARNER: I also am now getting $194 a month in SNAP food stamps, which is invaluable. But today is the 18. My food stamp award comes in on the 22. I have to eat for the next four days.
MARTIN: As we spoke to people, the line of cars kept growing, eventually snaking down the busy street outside the parking lot.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How many families? OK, two here.
MARTIN: Many of the people we talked with in line didn't want to say much about their situation. It seemed like a source of shame and pain. One or two said that falling short on food even for a couple of days a month was a chronic problem in an area where the cost of living is high. But most of the people we spoke with said the coronavirus pandemic or the steps taken to contain it was the main reason they needed help with food right now.
Linda is one of them. She was picking up food for her daughter and five grandchildren. Before the pandemic, she worked as a housekeeper.
LINDA: I laid off since May. I'm trying to apply for unemployment if I can.
MARTIN: That unemployment application has yet to be approved, and five months without work or any financial aid is taking its toll.
LINDA: It's too difficult, really. I'm struggling. I hope the pandemic - it's finished soon. You know, it's so difficult. But we are still blessed to have somebody to provide some food for us, so we will still thanks to God.
MARTIN: We also met Adam. He's a father of two. He and his wife are both collecting unemployment and seeking food assistance for the first time in their lives.
ADAM: Both me and my wife are on furlough since March. And now just with the extended benefits down, it's just - it's - yeah, the money is very - it's a lot lower now, so it helps. You know, any little bit helps now because you never know what's going to happen tomorrow or the next day. So it's good just to be prepared for it because you never know how long this is going to last.
MARTIN: There hadn't been any food distribution in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area until August. That's when Andrew Friedson, the Montgomery County council member for the area, brought together a coalition of nonprofit, commercial and faith-based groups to distribute food. You can hear that we're both talking through our masks.
This is an affluent area. Montgomery County is affluent in Maryland, and - which means it's one of the most affluent areas in the country. So when did you realize that you really did need something like that?
ANDREW FRIEDSON: Well, it has always been needed. I think there's more poverty in Montgomery County and even in places like Bethesda than people realize in normal times. And during COVID, it has just gone through the roof, the challenges that we face.
MARTIN: But Friedson says, since the start of the pandemic, the need for help with food and rent are the two biggest issues his office is hearing about from constituents.
FRIEDSON: We desperately need federal government support. The CARES Act was great. That's largely what is funding the public efforts on these - the CARES Act funding, the $183 million that the county has received. But it's nowhere near enough.
MARTIN: And while feeding those in need is the goal of this distribution event, volunteer John Ross says it's about more than just the food.
ROSS: What we want to do out here too is show people that people care. It's not just the calories, but it's the care that comes along with this, too - that we're all together in this, and we all need to be part of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD'S "BLOODLESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.