Greater Cleveland Food Bank Still Facing High Demand

A food bank volunteer hands a bag of apples to someone through their car window.
The Greater Cleveland Food Bank served more than 3,000 families weekly throughout December, and more than 5,000 families the week of Thanksgiving. [Greater Cleveland Food Bank]

The Greater Cleveland Food Bank saw record-breaking demand for services during the 2020 holiday season and expects the demand for food assistance to remain high for some time.

The food bank distributed more food in the week before Thanksgiving than any other week in its history, serving more than 5,000 families. That surge continued to close out the year, with more than 3,000 families coming through its distribution line weekly through December.

The continuing increase in need is similar to what happened during the Great Recession in 2008, said food bank President and CEO Kristin Warzocha, even as vaccinations offer a light at the end of the long COVID-19 tunnel.

“We are absolutely planning on continuing to operate at this very high level through all of 2021,” Warzocha said. “And if the last recession is any indication, I suspect we’ll be at this for even longer.”

After the recession officially ended, Warzocha said, food banks continued to see increased numbers of families coming in for assistance. Those who returned to the workforce were landing lower-paying jobs than before the downturn, she said, and still needed help making ends meet.

“Even though the recession technically ended and moved off the front page’s headlines, we were still serving more people than we had before the recession for years after,” Warzocha said. “I fear that that could be the case here.”

Over the course of the pandemic the food bank helped more than 45,000 new Cleveland-area families in 2020, Warzocha said, double the number from the previous year. The food bank and its partners have the resources to continue providing aid to more families as the pandemic continues, Warzocha said, with community donations and volunteers helping the food bank keep up with demand.

The recent federal stimulus package and extension of programs such as additional SNAP or unemployment benefits do help to combat food insecurity, Warzocha said.

“All of those things should help. That said, they’re not going to last forever,” Warzocha said. “Some of those are very time limited, and we know that we are absolutely going to continue to be busy.”

Some assistance programs have already come to an end, Warzocha said. The Farm to Families program, which brought 20,000 boxes of food and produce directly from farmers to the food bank and its partners each week, expired Dec. 31.

“We’re going to have millions of pounds of food to make up for,” Warzocha said. “And we’re going to have to do, I suspect, even more buying than we did last year. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

The Ohio National Guard was deployed to help distribute food to families in March 2020. Those 50 guardsmen will still help the food bank through March of this year, Warzocha said.

“We absolutely know that we have to take the long view here,” Warzocha said. “While I’m optimistic and hope for the best, we’re going to be at this for a while.”

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