Supporting Our Food Banks in the COVID-19 Crisis

Rhett N Mabry 200

Across the Carolinas, food banks are straining to meet a rising demand for help from families struggling under the impact of COVID-19. In response, Trustees of The Duke Endowment have awarded a $3.5 million grant to Feeding the Carolinas, a network of 10 food banks serving more than 3,700 charitable agencies in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Our president, Rhett Mabry, discusses this grant and the Endowment’s COVID-19 response in the interview below.

Q. Amid such far-reaching need, how is The Duke Endowment approaching its response to the coronavirus pandemic?

A. For many people, especially in historically marginalized communities, the virus has compounded the challenges they face daily. COVID-19 is taking a tragic toll: In the Carolinas alone, across all groups, officials in mid-May reported more than 26,000 identified cases and more than 1,000 deaths. The ripple effect is also devastating. With unemployment soaring, people can’t afford to pay rent. With children home from school, parents are struggling to put food on the table. As we try to cope, more of us are reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety.

As a leading funder in North Carolina and South Carolina, the Endowment’s focus is finding the best way to help communities here. During the early months of the pandemic, we want to support statewide efforts, and we’ve been working with our grantees and other funders to identify opportunities. We’ll continue to monitor statistics to pinpoint highest need and greatest potential for impact. We’ll continue to look for ways to keep current systemic inequities from growing worse.

The Endowment’s Board of Trustees approved $2.5 million in COVID-19 relief soon after the crisis began to impact North Carolina and South Carolina. Where did that funding go?

It focused on providing support at the statewide level for Carolinians experiencing the pandemic’s immediate effects. In North Carolina, $1.25 million is being dispersed through the North Carolina Healthcare Foundation, the charitable nonprofit affiliate of the North Carolina Healthcare Association. In South Carolina, $1.25 million is being dispersed through One SC Fund, a fund created at Central Carolina Community Foundation in 2015 to respond to natural disasters.

Q. What is the status of that work?

A. The North Carolina Healthcare Foundation has established a COVID-19 Fill the Gap Fund to respond to needs that can’t be met through public resources or reimbursement. Representatives from the health sector and social service organizations, including public health leaders and state agency partners, are serving as an advisory team.

One SC Fund: COVID-19 Response is a collaboration of the SC Grantmakers Network, Together SC and United Way Association of SC. It aims to mobilize the philanthropic community to provide funding, communication and advocacy for nonprofits serving the state’s vulnerable residents during the coronavirus crisis.

Q. Why did the Endowment direct this new grant to hunger relief?

A. Recent news stories highlight the growing number of families that are facing food shortages and hunger, especially among the working class, the elderly and the chronically under- and unemployed. Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, points to school closures, job disruptions and lack of paid sick leave as creating a sharp increase in the number of people who urgently need food assistance. While federal funding for farmers and food supplies has been approved, it may take several weeks to appear.

At the Endowment, food nutrition and distribution are important to each of our four program areas. Our Health Care program area is involved in work that addresses the social determinants of health – and disparities in health status are striking in communities with a prevalence of food insecurity. Through Rural Church, we have supported food distribution and access through rural congregations and we are exploring the possibility of supporting central community kitchens to promote healthy eating. Through Higher Education, we support the World Food Policy Center at Duke University. Child and Family Well-Being is all about better outcomes for children and families, and we know nutrition plays a role.

Q. Why Feeding the Carolinas?

A. As our Board chair, Minor Shaw, said in announcing the grant, Feeding the Carolinas provides help to people who need it the most across our two states. Its 10 food banks reach communities in all 146 counties of the Carolinas.

What’s more, we knew our funding could be put to immediate use. Executive Director Mike Darrow says he expects Feeding the Carolinas to spend between $1 million and $2 million per week on food purchases for the next six to eight weeks – and that estimate continues to grow.

Q. How are you keeping up with the crisis and its impact?

A. Like so many other businesses and organizations, our staff members have been working remotely, but we are in contact every day with our grantees and partners to learn how we can best support them and their communities.

We also have weekly calls with other funders, agency directors and nonprofit leaders in both states. For example, we’ve had a chance to hear the North Carolina state budget director explain how the first round of COVID-19 relief funding is being allocated and how the state’s revenue and spending could be impacted by the crisis. In South Carolina, the head of the Department of Employment and Workforce discussed unemployment issues with us.

Q. Any final words?

A. These are anxious times for all of us, but especially for the frontline organizations and workers who care for the ill, provide food for the hungry and assist people and families at risk. The Duke Endowment is committed to supporting their work.