As she provides information to the intake worker at the local food bank, she’s visibly distraught. “Can I help you with anything,” a nearby worker asks the woman. “Is there anything I can do.”
Responding to these kind words, the woman breaks down into tears.
“We’ve always tried to do everything right,” she says in between her sobs.“We never thought we’d need to come to a food bank. “
The intake worker quickly hands her some Kleenex, which the woman gratefully accepts.
“We’re all going through tough times,” says the other worker. “Even us. Like most of the other people you see here, we’re volunteers exchanging our time for some food. It’s sad that it’s come to this, but we’re fortunate that there’s somewhere like this to go for help.”
This is just one of the many scenes playing out in local food banks as scores of people —many who have never been to a food bank before — line up to get some food, which in many cases is delivered to their cars in already packed boxes or delivered directly to their homes.
The reason for this dramatic uptick in numbers of people going to food banks is COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. With so many businesses closed and so many people laid off from work, fears about having enough food to feed themselves and their families bubble up to the surface. Some food banks are running out of food before being able to help everyone who shows up.
In one town, they had to close down a highway to prepare for the long lines showing up at the foodbank. And in many cases, the National Guard has been called in to help.
So many newcomers
Food banks are reporting an average increase of 50 percent in demand for food assistance, compared to last year, based on surveys of Feeding America, a network food banks that feed more than
46 million people through various outlets. Forbes ranks it as the second largest U.S. charity by revenue.
According to the organization’s surveys, an estimated 40 percent of the people now being served have never been to a food bank before.
And making things more challenging yet, food banks report that on average 20 percent of their partner agencies, such as church pantries, school pantries, and meal programs, have closed or suspended operations because of the pandemic.
Jenna Russo, spokesperson for Feeding Westchester, a food bank in New York state, said in 2019 her foodbank gave out 10.1 million pounds of food. Already this year since March, it has given out 5.5 million pounds of food.
“Our food bank line is longer than ever,” she said. “There are a lot of people coming to us for the first time.”
On the other side of the country, the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services organization served approximately 150,000 people each month before the pandemic. In April and May, that number went up to more than 300,000 people a month.
In March, the nearby food bank in Yolo County, CA, started delivering food to elderly and medically vulnerable people who were sheltering in place.
Joy Cohan, director of philanthropic engagement at Yolo Food Bank, said that 750 households received boxes in the program’s first week. By mid-May, the food bank was delivering boxes to 3,000 households per week. In total, the food bank now feeds about 45,000 people, about 60 percent more than before the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the COVID Impact Survey, conducted by researchers at NORC at the University of Chicago, California’s food insecurity level more than doubled between March and April, from approximately 11 percent of the state’s population, to approximately a quarter, or about 40 million people.
In comparison, during the Great Recession of 2008, food insecurity increased nationally by just 3 1/2 percent.
It all happened so fast
For families and farmers alike, it all happened so fast. Suddenly crops in the fields, livestock ready to be butchered, and milk in the tanks lost customers when restaurants, schools, retail stores and more were forced to close their doors. Demand for some foods such as potatoes, many of which were grown to become french fries, and milk — much of which was slated to go to school lunches — plunged.
Produce was left to rot in the fields or wasn’t even planted. A poultry processor in Delaware had to euthanize 2 million chickens because so many workers were out sick because of coronavirus. Some beef plants had to temporarily shutdown because of the same reason: worker shortages caused by the virus. Even pig farmers were having to kill perfectly healthy 300-pound pigs and throw them into the compost pile simply because meat processors were facing decreased demand due to restaurant closures.
Unemployment skyrocketed, money was scarce, and more and more people started turning to food banks for help.
COVID-19 not about food safety
While food-safety officials assure people that food is not known to be a route of transmission for COVID-19, its overall effect on agriculture and therefore the U.S. food supply has been dire.
To help get food to people, governments have stepped in and directed funding to food banks and other feeding programs. Many philanthropists, churches and celebrities have made donations. Banks have donated food and money. And some farmers have given food away . . . such as the thousands of bags of potatoes farmers gave directly to people and to food banks.
Of course, there’s more to this picture than food, itself. Whereas once food banks had a pretty good idea of how many people would show up for food, suddenly they were and are overwhelmed by how many newcomers are showing up for help. That means the food banks immediately needed more food (twice as much, if not more, as normal); more storage space, more refrigeration, and more volunteers.
What about food safety?
In the crush of all of this, food safety remains a top priority, even though coronavirus dominates the news.
That’s because people can get sick, sometimes critically ill, or even die from eating food contaminated with foodborne pathogens (https://www.fda.gov/food/outbreaks-foodborne-illness/foodborne-pathogens) such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria — not just from meat and dairy but also produce. These microscopic pathogens can’t be seen or smelled, which is why it’s so important for people to know how to keep themselves, their families and their friends safe from them.
Of course, food banks are just one of many sources for food. As such, they work hard to make sure they supply only safe food to recipients. That’s also true for grocery stores, restaurants, food trucks, feeding programs and street food.
Not surprisingly, a lot of pieces go into this puzzle, among them making sure the food has been kept at the right temperature all along the way and keeping storage units and shipping containers clean. And at the end of the chain is the consumer, who plays an important part in all of this by following good food safety practices at home.
Fortunately, basic prevention tactics are pretty straightforward. Keep certain foods such as lettuces at 41 degrees or colder (in other words, in your refrigerator) or cook foods such as meats to high enough temperatures to kill any pathogens that might be on them. For example, cook hamburger to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F and poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.
And, of course, cleanliness is all important. Handwashing before, during and after preparing and serving food and not using the same kitchen implements and cutting boards for raw meats and produce are important.
For a full rundown of easy-to-understand basic food safety information from USDA, go here (https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/18cece94-747b-44ca-874f-32d69fff1f7d/Basics_for_Safe_Food_Handling.pdf?MOD=AJPERES).
Some troubling numbers
Foodborne illness is a major preventable public health challenge that causes an estimate of nearly 48 million foodborne disease illnesses each year, with 128,000 requiring hospitalization, and resulting in 3,000 deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Common symptoms of foodborne illness are diarrhea and/or vomiting, typically lasting one to seven days. Other symptoms might include abdominal cramps, nausea, fever, joint/back aches, and fatigue.
The incubation period — the time between exposure to the pathogen and onset of symptoms — can range from several hours to one week.
Unfortunately, many programs have greatly reduced or stopped their food safety initiatives amid the pandemic and even before. For example, from 2008-2016, local health departments lost more than 2,000 environmental health full-time employees. These staffing and resource restraints have affected the quantity and quality of services provided. It goes without saying that the COVID-19 public health response has made this deficiency even more troubling.
Also troubling is that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne illness in 2019, in locations where information
was gathered, was on the rise compared with the period between 2016 and 2018. The CDC report shows that foodborne pathogens are increasing across the board. Chicken and leafy greens were specifically cited among the culprits.
What about those dates on labels?
Unfortunately, many food bank recipients, and consumers in general, don’t know how to figure out how long they can keep food from the food bank or the store before it goes bad. Or even if it needs to be washed or refrigerated.
And what are all of those labels about. It can be so confusing. “best by,” “sell by,” and “use by.” What does all of this mean?
One recipient wondered about the milk she had been given at a food bank. The expiration date was past by a few days. Did this mean it was no longer safe to drink? Should she throw it away. Yet why did the food bank give it to her? She had been planning to serve it to her kids.
Another called her local food bank to complain about how dismayed she was that they had given her yoghurt that was post dated. As far as she was concerned it wasn’t something she should feed to her children.
Unfortunately, some food banks don’t provide information about labeling to recipients. Many believe their mission is to get food to the recipients, not to provide them with some basic information about what to do with it once they take it home.
But some food banks believe it is important for food bank recipients to have this information on hand. For that reason, Feeding Westchester, a food bank in New York state, prints up a booklet chock full of food safety information that it supplies to food recipients. And this year, it will also be slipping thousands of a two-sided flyer about dates and labeling into recipients’ food boxes.
“People always want information on this,” said Danice Tatosian, senior manager of nutrition and public health, referring to dates and labeling. “It’s a game-changer. We don’t want to see food go to waste because people don’t know when something is safe to eat.”
Like most food banks, Feeding Westchester often receives food items that are close to or past the indicated date on their package. The majority of the time, the food is still safe to eat. Food manufacturers use different date codes and terms to ensure that consumers receive their product as peak quality. Once a product is past code date, it can still be of good quality and safe to eat, which is why many manufacturers and stores donate it to the foodbank.
Many food products can be kept past their dates if they are handled properly. Understanding the different terms on food packages can help you decide if a food is still safe to eat. Here are some common date terms explained by Feeding Westchester.
Go here to read the food bank’s guidelines about dates and labeling (https://feedingwestchester.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/2018-Updated-Food-Dating-Guide.pdf)
So what those dates actually mean?
The only items required by federal law to have expiration dates are baby formula and medications; do not distribute or consume these items past the expiration date. Some states require eggs to have expiration dates, but they can still be safe to eat 3-5 weeks after their expiration dates.
This is the date the stores must sell the food by. The manufacturer takes into account that the item will be stored at home after the sell-by date. Because stores cannot sell products after the sell-by date, they usually donate the foods when they are close to the date. If the foods have been stored and handled properly, they are still safe to eat and the quality is good.
This date is the manufacturer’s recommendation for how long the food will be at peak quality. After the use-by date, the food is still safe to eat but it will slowly begin to loose nutrients.
This is the date on which the product was packaged. This date is used by manufactures for tracking purposes. These products have a long shelf life, have good quality and can be safe to eat past the date.
Tatosian said it’s important for people to understand these codes because so much of the “dated” food is still good to eat. She likes knowing that it gives people the knowledge to save money and reduce food waste.
When she gives workshops on this, she often hears people say “I had no idea.”
Jill Bickel-Schnuck, a food bank recipient in Western Washington, applauds Feeding Westchester for making this sort of information available.
“Yes, understanding about this is important,” she said. “Food banks should be doing this, especially for newcomers. A lot of people don’t know how long after the date on the label the food is still safe to eat.”
She thinks that giving out printed information is especially helpful because “not all of this sort of information gets stored in our brains.”
Josh Martinez, co-chair of the Food Safety Committee at Food Lifeline, said “food in the real world is subject to all sorts of environmental conditions, and may last longer or expire sooner than the date on the package.”
Wayne Melichar, managing director of food safety for Feeding America, agrees. And he points out that if food is too far past the date, it will often spoil.
Food spoilage is caused by microrganisms such as molds, bacteria, fungi and yeast.
And Martinez reminds people of a time honored, food safety motto: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
When it’s still safe
No one wants to make a mistake with perishable foods such as dairy and meat. They wonder that if the date on a package has passed, how long is it still safe for eating or drinking?
Here are some examples of that, as supplied by Feeding Westchester’s
Food Dating Guidelines:
Fresh milk can be safely consumed one week after the date on the container. For yoghurt, it’s two weeks. For aerosol whipped cream it’s one month, butter is two months. Cheeses including cottage, rocotta, soft, and cream cheese are safe for weeks. Hard cheese and shredded parmesan are good for six months. Cheese, processed slices or shredded is OK for one month.
As for meats and poultry, the advice is to follow “use-by date,” or cook or freeze within one to three days of “sell by” date. If the meat or poultry has been frozen, defrost in the refrigerator, in the microwave, or in a package put in cold water. Don’t ever leave it out to defrost at room temperature. You can refreeze thawed meat.
“As long as you’ve thawed raw meat, poultry, or seafood in the refrigerator, you can refreeze it,” said Maribel Alonso, a technical information specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And any cooked meat can be refrozen.
However, raw meat that has been refrozen won’t taste as good.
“When the meat is thawed, you lose moisture,” says Alonso. “Add another freeze-thaw cycle, and the consistency and tenderness of the meat will change.”
People love fresh produce, but many people don’t realize that most fruits and vegetables have the best quality when kept refrigerated.
Of course, produce should be washed before eating it or giving it to friends or family members. But don’t go overboard. Washing it under running water is the way to go. Don’t rinse it in or spray it with solutions that contain bleach or other cleaning compounds. You don’t want to be ingesting them.
As for lettuces and greens, be sure to refrigerate them. Don’t let them languish on a countertop.
And never store produce in the refrigerator underneath meat or poultry or fish.
There are some exceptions to refrigerating produce. For example, tomatoes actually taste better when they’re not refrigerated. For that reason, they’re best left on the counter top.
Hardy veggies like potatoes, onions, garlic and sweet potatoes should be stored in cool dark places outside of the refrigerator.
The Feeding Westchester guidelines also include tips on shelf-stable products, canned foods, beverages and mixes, condiments, sauces, syrups, dry goods, refrigerated items, frozen products and storing canned and boxed food.
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