As extra unemployment runs out, Food Bank of Alaska braces for elevated need to grow

Byron Corral helps pass out boxes of food at the Food Bank of Alaska’s emergency distribution site at Tikahtnu Commons in East Anchorage on Monday, July 20, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)  

Byron Corral loaded boxes of food into a car in a giant parking lot in East Anchorage.

”One of the boxes is milk, like two gallons of milk,” Corral, 26, said through a face mask. “In other boxes, there’s just an assortment of dry goods. And another box is fresh produce.”

Corral was one of about 10 volunteers at the Food Bank of Alaska’s drive-thru, emergency distribution site on a recent weekday evening. He and the others quickly stacked boxes into cars and trucks, working through a line of vehicles that snaked through the lot. 

It seems busy now, Corral said. But you should have seen it this spring as the coronavirus shut down businesses and unemployment skyrocketed.

“The first week when we started this location, the whole entire parking lot was full,” he said. “We had at least 500 to 600 families that were served. And usually we average like 100.”

Mike Reusser, the director of operations at the food bank, said the initial spike in need was staggering. The food bank saw a steep rise in the number of people brand-new to the food bank in late March and April. 

Since then, the total numbers have declined and leveled out, but they are still above normal. And there’s concern about a second spike coming, especially with uncertainty about the future of federal unemployment benefits that are set to expire at the end of July, said Jim Baldwin, the food bank’s chief executive.

“We’re all getting a little anxious,” he said. “We’re wondering, ‘Are we going to have another surge in August?’” 

RELATED: Alaska’s economy is headed for an ‘income cliff’ at end of July

For now, the food bank is estimating that the need is up about 75% statewide compared to last year.

Lisa Aquino, chief executive of Catholic Social Services, said the St. Francis House Food Pantry in Anchorage experienced a similar spike in clients in the spring.

While numbers have plateaued, she said, they continue to serve a striking number of new people. 

“The troublesome thing I think that means is that these are people who are not able to sort of make ends meet and ordinarily they have, but they can’t right now because of the situation — because they can’t work because of COVID or they lost their job or because they also have to take care of their kids and they can’t make all that balance,” she said. 

SEE ALSO: Additional actions needed, state warns, or ‘cases are expected to continue to rise rapidly’

Aquino said she also worries about what happens when federal, state and local benefits triggered by the pandemic expire. 

“There’s still record-high unemployment, still real struggles because of the pandemic, so we anticipate that the need for food is going to skyrocket,” she said. 

Reusser said he expects that increased need to last for months if not longer.

“Given what we’ve experienced to this point, what we’re experiencing now, we would expect the need to be sustained, especially into the school year and through the winter,” he said. 

He said the rise in demand has also come with an increase in volunteers and donations from the community.