How Food Banks are Coping With the Pandemic’s Hunger Crisis

Maria Amaya had just returned to work after a bout with the seasonal flu when an entirely new virus knocked her back down. This time, it wasn’t the sickness that ailed her, but the ripple effects of a deadly pandemic.

The 58-year-old single mom—the sole breadwinner for her 22-year-old cognitively impaired son—lost her full-time cafeteria job and part-time restaurant gig. Unemployment benefits never came.

With no savings, mounting bills and deepening dread, she turned to charity to stay fed. After decades of holding her own, she says it felt uncomfortable asking for help.

“What else could I do?” she asks.

The half-hour walks from home to the bustling food giveaways at Cathedral of Faith just south of San Jose’s Guadalupe-Canoas neighborhood became a twice-weekly ritual. Before long, she began volunteering, which led to some paid work helping people who flocked to the church out of the same desperation that brought Amaya there.

Hunger has long been a harsh reality in the U.S. and in Silicon Valley, even in boom times. But the illness, job loss and business closures hastened by the coronavirus pandemic broadened and deepened the destitution.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Jim Gallagher, an associate pastor at the Cathedral of Faith known by the congregation as “The Dream Doctor.”

Last year, he says, the outreach team overseeing the church’s 15,000-square-foot warehouse distributed $14.8 million worth of food from Second Harvest Silicon Valley to 41,000 families—that’s 150,000 individuals altogether. In the first two months of 2020, the food giveaway kept up roughly the same pace, handing out groceries for about 500 households on distribution days.

Those numbers skyrocketed once the pandemic struck. And Gallagher expects them to get worse before they get better.

Food for Naught

Since March, Cathedral of Faith has been handing out food to more than 1,000 households—and as many as 1,850—on each distribution day. Compared to 2019, the ministry this year is on track to see a threefold increase in people served, extending $41 million in food to 500,000 individuals from 300,000 households.

The hunger pangs are far-reaching.

Second Harvest has been scrambling to meet a doubling in demand to 500,000 clients a month since the pandemic emerged earlier this year. The city of San Jose, which has been using federal CARES Act money to feed a growing number of hungry residents, reported a 15 percent uptick in recipients in the past month alone.

Pre-Covid, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that about 35 million Americans—including 11 million children—didn’t know where their next meal would come from. In 2020, those figures swelled to 54 million and 18 million, respectively.

The lack of sustenance disproportionately impacts Latino and Black households, as well as immigrant and rural communities.

Suzanne Willis, a program development and marketing manager for Second Harvest down in Watsonville, remembers when her food pantry served about 55,000 people monthly, providing them with parcels of fresh produce and pantry staples.

This was early in 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic. After that, the number climbed to approximately 88,000—an increase of 60 percent. Part of the problem is that each winter, tourism and agricultural jobs dry up. That means families need help to feed themselves and to survive, even in a year without a pandemic.

“If you’re spending everything you have on rent and medical and gas, you don’t have the funds for food,” Willis says. “A lot of the work we’re trying to do is make sure people have access to the fresh produce, the lean proteins and the whole grains they need, but also the knowledge on how to use it.”

University of California, Berkeley, sociology professor David Harding agrees that workers in tourist industries often face dueling vulnerabilities: they work in boom-or-bust economies, in areas with an exceedingly high cost of living.

Harding says the pre-pandemic economy was actually pretty good at the start of 2020, in terms of markers like unemployment. But the U.S. generally has high levels of economic inequality compared to other wealthy democratic countries. So, many Californians were already in a precarious spot.

“Our economy is one that, even in the best of times, many working and middle-class families are living paycheck-to-paycheck and aren’t able to prepare for a time like this when the economy goes south,” says Harding, whose research interests include poverty, inequality, urban communities, race and the criminal justice system. “If people have to shelter-at-home and businesses are closed, it doesn’t take long before people are struggling to meet their basic material needs. And we’re seeing that.”

Sure enough, Willis says that during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, Second Harvest’s numbers went from Second Harvest’s numbers jumped from 30,000 people picking up food per month to 50,000, and they never went down.

In Santa Clara County, information compiled by the nonprofit Feeding America shows that 7.2 percent of residents were food insecure, or hungry, in 2018. And according to state data, the share of Santa Clara County households receiving CalFresh food assistance climbed 81 percent between February and June.

Needing the Way

The effect of the pandemic on food security came swiftly. In a study released this past spring, researchers at Northwestern University found that food insecurity doubled in April of 2020 and tripled for families with children.

In subsequent analyses, the two researchers found that the troublingly high levels held steady into the summer and that Black and Latino children remained much more likely to be food insecure than white kids were.

Willis says the struggles of hungry families are often intertwined with housing insecurity, job insecurity and all forms of social, racial and economic injustices. “All of it ties in together, and it all has this snowball effect on a person who maybe is kind of making it, and all of a sudden you throw in a broken car or a cancer diagnosis or something; that is the kind of thing that will throw a family on the edge completely over it,” Willis says

In general, Harding thinks it can be easy for many Americans to lose sight of what social scientists really mean when they talk about poverty. The typical definition of poverty, whether to a government agency or to an academic, is that someone’s income falls below a threshold, but what that really means is that someone doesn’t have enough money to pay for their very basic needs—food and housing. The resulting consequences can be devastating, especially as they fall on the nation’s kids.

“They’re pretty severe,” Harding explains, noting that the initial rounds of federal stimulus helped, but the benefits wore off. “If you’re thinking about children, it’s going to be influencing their social and emotional development. It’s going to be impacting their ability to apply themselves in school.”

These problems extend far and wide, including to students at the state’s public universities, despite California’s efforts to expand services.

Uncertain Outlook

A few months ago, the Cathedral of Faith teamed up with Healing Grove—a nonprofit clinic serving primarily impoverished Latino families in San Jose’s Washington neighborhood—to hire 35 people who lost jobs in the pandemic to help out with food distribution. Amaya was one of them.

“They’ve been amazing,” Gallagher tells San Jose Inside. “A lot of them are single moms and really, really struggling.”

The church outreach also began tailoring its culinary offerings to appeal to the Latino and Vietnamese families that make up most of its clientele. Now, depending on a family’s preference, they can ask for a box of chicken, herbs, noodles and chili sauce and other ingredients to make pho. Or, they could request a package of pork butt, corn husks and masa, among additional items, to whip up some homemade tamales.

“That way people can feed their families what they want,” Gallagher says, “and not just what they get. I know that’s what I’d want for my family.”

Amaya says she’s grateful for the chance to work—especially in a way that meets a need she relates to. But the day before Christmas Eve marked her last day getting paid. She’s stocked up on food for now, but says she has no clue how to pay rent come Feb. 1.

“I can’t think about that right now,” she says, pulling down her blue mask to wipe away tears. “I cry. I cry every day. I can’t go to sleep.”

Without some kind of relief—a new job, at least—Amaya says she’s unsure how to avoid homelessness. “I’m afraid,” she says. “But I don’t want to cry in front of my son.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Thanks ? to all the churches which have always supported the communities before and during pandemic. Saint Mary’s Church in Gilroy have fed those in need for decades. Other churches with less resources are doing their part too. God bless you all! Those of us with a bit more of time and money should donate more to these faith institutions and local food banks. The most important thing, we should all pray! Talk to your faith leaders and ask how to help.

  2. > Talk to your faith leaders and ask how to help.


    Next time you talk to your faith leaders, ask them what they think about the MANDATORY Employee California Anti-Sexual Harassment and Diversity Training.

    According to the California Diversity experts, the “Golden Rule” is no longer good enough.

    Instead of “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”, the California Diversity Sensitivity Inclusiveness Anti-Bullying standard is now:

    “Do unto others as THEY want to have done to them.”

    In case it’s not clear to you, this means YOU have to use THEIR preferred pronoun, and if you don’t know that their preferred pronoun is, you should ask “sensitively”, and NOT be judgmental.

    To avoid making you have to ask, Queen Victoria and I have the same preferred pronoun: the royal “we”.

    “We are not amused”.

  3. Bubble, Give to Cesar what belongs to Cesar and to God what belongs to God. We are talking about faith leaders and Jesus’ ministry of feeding the hungry and having compassion. If someone has a preference for pronouns, I do not have a problem with that. You should all know, I am in love with my lord Jesus. I do not apologize or ask permission for that! I AM A CHRISTIAN! I have been discriminated for being Christian more than anything. I have called police on guys who have harassed me. I have a bad luck for guys falling in love with me. Police do not do much. I have to wait to call until guys touch me per SJPD. The laws are there, no one gives a sh!t. Next time I will pay the cholos to do my duty business! People from the LGBT community also discriminate others. The oppressed are very often the oppressors. I do not care who the oppressors are. I go after them every time LGBTQ or not. I have zero patience for this sh!t. I have zero respect for bad actors. I really apply equality, zero respect for evil faith leaders, LGBTQ, straight, family members…all equal on my lens! My respect, love, gratitude, for the good seeds…even the lord cuts the trees with no fruits! He blesses the righteous! Yo pescador, perdóname señor!

  4. Thanks and kudos to Wadsworth, Guild and Pierce for this fine piece on a topic that should be in the headlines every day. Counting the hungry, the food insecure, the houseless and the unemployed, compassionately describing their conditions and travails, and persistently keeping their individual and collective stories at the forefront of public consciousness, is the minimum we must demand from any committed media. Beyond this, we should also expect explanations as to how so many can suffer at the margins of sufficiency in a society of superabundance for the few.

    To do so opens those asking such a question to slings and arrows. As the Brazilian Archbishop Hélder Câmara stated so eloquently during the decades of the military dictatorship (1964-1985), “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist” ( The question must be asked and answers must be extracted whatever the consequences. Lopsided distribution of income and wealth are surely central to any true accounting. By the same token, redistribution of income and wealth are central to sustainably mitigating poverty and insufficiency. Committed media should always be preoccupied with this primal narrative.

  5. Aha! A teachable moment!

    > we should also expect explanations as to how so many can suffer at the margins of sufficiency in a society of superabundance for the few.

    It’s really quite simple, Mr. Marxist.

    The reason that so many suffer from insufficiency is that so many are ONLY consumers without being producers.

    The reason why there is “superabundance for the few”, is that only the few are producers.

    Ask any ecologist to explain this to you:

    Foragers consume the resources of their habitat until the resources are depleted. Then they move on to find a new habitat.

    Producers consume resources in their habitat that they have produced. They continually replenish the resources and DON’T have to move on to find a new habitat.

    – Consumption alone ends in poverty.
    – Consumption balanced against production ends in prosperity.

    The theory of communism is that poverty can be ended by enslaving producers.
    The actual result of communism is slaves who don’t produce anything and consumers with nothing to consume.

    If you want to help the poor and the hungry, your pompous, virtue-signaling compassion is totally worthless.

    The poor and the hungry will benefit when they are enabled and empowered to participate in the sustainable productive processes of a free market economy.

    Now, go out and teach people how to fish.

  6. If white liberal do-gooders REALLY wanted to help poor black people, they would give them PERSONAL loans to go to Harvard Business School instead of giving them welfare, food giveaways, abortions, and permission to loot Walmarts and liquor stores.

  7. You give stuff away for free, people show up and take it. What does this show? It shows whatever you want it to show apparently.

  8. The free food and free taxpayer money is going to run out.
    What’s next?
    Is Costco selling “Kirkland” brand ammunition?
    David S. Wall

  9. The anarcho-capitalists ( who regularly deface the comments spaces beneath San Jose Inside articles (and regular readers will recognize their graffiti tags) are at pains to explain the surge in food insecurity raging across our region and country. For some, it is the existence of food assistance that has created the unprecedented surge in the numbers of people showing up. Take away the assistance and no one has any need for it. This, of course, reverses commonly understood logic of the reality. People get into food lines because of the existence of the free food distributions, not because their incomes have evaporated due to business closures stemming from the pandemic and economic crisis. In this view, Ms. Amaya’s circumstances, as described in the above piece, are dismissed as a fraud or as a rare case.

    Others in this society of sociopaths will tell you that poverty exists because the poor are net consumers–they consume more than they produce, depleting productive resources in their wake, as if they were a flock of sheep who have overgrazed their grassy endowment. In this mumbled story, the poor must be shown the error of their ways, obstructionist government must be pared back and the poor must be “empowered” to produce their livelihoods in some free market utopia dreamed up by Ayn Rand.

    None of these ideologically-driven fraudsters will tell you that those who must work on pain of physical deprivation produce everything in this society and those who do not work at all–or who have no need to work to survive–are the biggest consumers of resources around here. It’s already been explained quite clearly and quite simply ( but none of the “graffiti artists” has been able to debunk the fact that it is only Mario, and all the Marios out there, who produce all of the wealth for business owners. The best they can do is attack the messenger as a Marxist, socialist or communist in the hopes of delegitimizing the argument. Their whining rants are feeble, and increasingly transparent, attempts to camouflage gaping intellectual deficits and a scandalous moral depravity.

  10. Bubble and ECONOCLAST represent the political problem of our times, the extreme left and right. To start, it is the people not the rich who have keep the US moving forward during these pandemic times! There are some people who do need help and others that takes advantage. I personally referred some families to these churches after they lost employment. I know few people who do not need as much and make lines every week just because it is free. Thus, just because there are some who take advantage of these situations, we should not generalize. The same has happened with the unemployment benefits. Some people legitimately need this support. Others have taken advantage of it and even engaged in big time fraud. The flaws are in our systems not the people who worked, lost employment, and now they need support. Trump and Fidel Castro are two examples of these extremely capitalist and communist thoughts. It is clear Trump loves money and power, capitalism is known for that. Castro was against capitalism. When he died, he had accumulated a fortune of $900 million dollars. We all know, Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ro Khanna, AOC…All love power and money. The presentation of their intentions is different. The most disadvantaged of the people have continued working under high risk situations. After the pandemic, we will re-learn those who produce are meaningless without a work force. People will have many employers to choose from and pick the lowest rent. Google and Facebook will continue their “world talent” recruitment practices!

  11. > Their whining rants are feeble, and increasingly transparent, attempts to camouflage gaping intellectual deficits and a scandalous moral depravity.

    Since you brought up “moral depravity”, what is your standard of “moral depravity”?

    Or, more particularly, what is the basis of your morality?

    I have my theories about your morality, but I would like to hear you explain yourself.

    Usually, progressives disparage “morality” as the rantings of television evangelists. So, it’s an important moment in the history of social progress to get a clear picture of where progressive morality actually comes from.

  12. > The flaws are in our systems not the people who worked, lost employment, and now they need support. Trump and Fidel Castro are two examples of these extremely capitalist and communist thoughts.

    So, your answer is a “system” that is half capitalist and half communist?

    How is that going to work?

  13. > It’s already been explained quite clearly and quite simply . . .

    > Mario’s work–and only Mario’s work–generated the owner’s profits.

    “quite clearly . . . quite simply” . . . WRONG.

    Just the old commie “Surplus Value” theory.

    How much value does Mario’s work generate if he digs holes and fills them up?”

    Work does NOT create value.

    Marx was a primitive dumbbell and a lifelong slacker who wrote stupid things in German. Haven’t you figured that out yet?

  14. My answer Bubble is that because we have allowed the #Trump’s and the #Bernie’s divide this nation with their extreme communist and capitalist non sense ideas and thoughts nothing gets done! Trump and Bernie Sanders are past because the people chose to! Let’s move on!

  15. Right Bubble! Let’s move on from crazy #Bernie and crazy #Trump to #KamalaHarris times! 2021! #MAGA and Green New #Dream died with 2020! #NeverBernie #NeverTrump

  16. OMG Bubble! First you said I was Michelle Dauber and now Kamala Harris. Well, I know and like both…, and I supported their campaigns from day one. Kamala will be president. If faith can move mountains, my faith will make Kamala President of the United States. They both were born about a decade before I was born. They are both pro-choice, and I am pro-life. The three of us share the Big on compassion and Tough on crime perspective (sexual crimes for sure). We believe in rehabilitating offenders but not giving them a pass for their crimes. We are all FEMINISTS!

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