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Amid coronavirus, ‘food deserts’ thinly stretch aid groups

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Denver Newsroom, Apr 28, 2020 / 03:01 am MT (CNA).- The coronavirus pandemic has heightened the problem of food insecurity in many areas of the US already classified as “food deserts”— swaths of the country where people lack access to affordable, nutritious food.

Dave Barringer, CEO for the National Council of the U.S. Society of St. Vincent de Paul, told CNA that across the country, the organization’s food banks have seen a fourfold increase in demand.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is an international lay Catholic organization whose members operate food pantries, provide housing assistance, and normally, make house visits to the needy.

“What we’re seeing, especially in urban areas where you don’t have as many grocery stores to begin with…African American and impoverished neighborhoods— that’s where the food crisis is the worst,” Barringer told CNA.

“The first people that got laid off were those in minimum wage jobs…jobs where they needed to be there every day to be paid. It wasn’t a salary. And so they’re out of work, they can’t go to the store, and they don’t have an income,” he said.

While the problem of food insecurity on the global scale is most acute in sub-Saharan Africa, people in many areas of the US such as inner cities and vast swaths of the west also live in food deserts.

Even before the pandemic, some 11% of US households were food insecure at least some time during 2018, including 4.3% with “very low food security,” according to the US Department of Agriculture.

St. Vincent DePaul has around 4,400 locations across the US, falling into two main categories— those associated with parishes, which are called conferences; and councils, which are organized roughly at the diocese-wide level and tend to be bigger operations with more partnerships.

The smaller, conference-level St. Vincent de Paul operations often depend on donations from parishioners.

“Because we’re in those neighborhoods…we’re often the first level of response for people to go to for help,” Barringer said.

With public Masses still suspended in almost every diocese, most conferences have experienced a large drop in donations.

The councils, because many of them have partnerships with local food banks or grocery stores, tend to have a better grasp on resources, but also are stretched.

Typically, a person coming in for help at a St. Vincent de Paul pantry is given a chance to “shop around” for the food that best suits their needs. With social distancing measures in place across the nation, the pantries have had to adapt.

“What we tend to be doing is packing food boxes based on the number of people in a family, or taking orders and doing curbside deliveries,” Barringer said, adding that the pantries also have to ensure that people waiting in line stay six feet apart.

“A no-contact kind of situation— very labor intensive, but also safe,” he said.

An estimated 2.3 million US households, or 2.2%, live more than a mile from a grocery store and lack access to a vehicle, the USDA says, meaning many must rely on public transportation or walk.

Downtown St. Louis, where Barringer lives, is one such area that is in particular need of help, he said. It is a very diverse area, economically and demographically, with many underemployed people, immigrants, and large families.

The Vincentian food pantry for the area is struggling under a demand four to five times greater than usual, Barringer said, and without the regular parish collections the St. Louis council has had to divert funds it would normally use for at-home visits into the food pantry.

The best way to help the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s efforts, he said, is to donate to one’s local council or conference. Cash is always better than food, he said, because many local Vincentian groups are adept at purchasing the most affordable food in the community.

“They’ll put it directly toward the need where it’s greatest,” he said.

Barringer urged prayer for those suffering from food insecurity during the pandemic.

“The main mission of the Society is to get people closer to God,” he said.

“Maybe this is an opportunity to see fresh ways to get involved with the Church or get involved with organizations like ours, because the need is there all the time whether it’s a crisis or not.”

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