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Nation & World

Pittsburgh Food Bank CEO On Food Insecurity In The U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Some people had to make last-minute stops at the grocery store this week to get Thanksgiving dinner on the table. Others idled in their cars for hours, waiting for boxes of food and the assurance that at least this week, they would not go hungry. Food insecurity is at a crisis level in the U.S. According to the census, nearly 26 million people recently reported that they sometimes or often don't have enough to eat. The picture is far worse for people with children. To tell us what this looks like right now in one big city, Lisa Scales joins us. She's president and CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LISA SCALES: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You know, back in March, a widely shared video showed a line of hundreds of cars waiting to pick up food from your food bank in Pittsburgh. That was eight months ago. What do things look like now?

SCALES: Well, we continue to see a higher than normal level of need here in the Pittsburgh area. There were people in line for food prior to the pandemic. The disparities in society have existed long before the pandemic. But here in the Pittsburgh area, we have seen a 42% increase in the food insecurity rate and a 57% increase in children's food insecurity rate.

SHAPIRO: Do you have a sense of how many of the people showing up at your food bank these days are coming through for the first time?

SCALES: Over 50% of the people we're serving...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

SCALES: ...Are first-time users. We continue to receive phone calls every day from people who are recently unemployed or they've been unemployed for several months. And they're to the breaking point now where they don't have enough food to eat.

SHAPIRO: And so you're seeing people who might have lost their jobs months ago but have now just run through their savings and don't have a safety net.

SCALES: That's right. They've run through their savings, they're no longer able to receive their unemployment benefits, and they're now calling us.

SHAPIRO: Do you feel like the lawmakers and others who can make a difference are listening and appreciate the scale of the problem right now?

SCALES: Well, that's a great question, Ari. We know that the need is significant and is incredible right now, more so than ever before, and we know that there's a need to do even more to help support families that are struggling to put food on the table. So there is more that can be done. We are looking to the federal government to pass new legislation to support the many families that are struggling. If that does not happen, we are anticipating another incredible spike in demand.

SHAPIRO: You know, saying something like demand has increased more than 40% is a staggering number, but it's still hard to personalize that. Can you tell us about someone you've met who has come to the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in need?

SCALES: I have met so many people, Ari, who have come through. I've spoken with them. I've heard their stories. They shared their desperation, their fear since they're facing an uncertain future. I remember early on in the crisis meeting a woman who's a florist in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. And she had just been laid off, and she didn't know how she was going to survive. I've spoken with people who basically, when they were getting a box of food, said, thank you. This is saving my life. I don't know if I would make it through the month without this food.

SHAPIRO: We talk a lot about the mental and emotional toll that this pandemic is taking on frontline health care workers. You're a different kind of frontline worker. How are you holding up?

SCALES: Well, I'm holding up well. The generosity of the community has inspired me, inspires our staff. Our community here in Pittsburgh is so generous, and that really keeps us going. But we have all had our dark moments and our moments when this has just been overwhelming. The worst thing for a food banker is to not be able to provide food to people, and there have been times over the last nine months where we have come very close to that. And in fact, when you saw that long line of cars - we had to turn away a couple hundred cars in our first distribution in mid-March, and that weighed on us. We vowed to not let that happen ever again.

SHAPIRO: Lisa Scales is president and CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Thank you for talking with us.

SCALES: Thank you so much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.