Nearly 18 months since the Covid-19 pandemic began, food insecurity in Fairbanks remains high, according to some agencies. While the Fairbanks Community Food Bank and the Salvation Army have noticed a decrease in need, Stone Soup Café and the Immaculate Conception Church’s soup kitchen have not seen a similar drop in customers.
Already high, food insecurity spikes with pandemic
Food need — already extremely high in Fairbanks prior to the pandemic — spiked during the health crisis. All four agencies reported serving an influx of first-time customers, particularly families with children.
“There was a huge outcry for food at the start of the pandemic,” said Anne Weaver, Fairbanks Community Food Bank CEO. According to Weaver, food insecurity peaked last fall — in September, October and November. She noted that people who were typically donors turned to the bank for help.
The Fairbanks Salvation Army noticed a similar trend. The Salvation Army receives supplies from the food bank and distributes food boxes to families in need. According to Maj. Shevaun Malone, the number of food requests doubled; from spring until fall of 2020, they were distributing 40 boxes a week.
Stone Soup Café has served a record number of meals since 2019 and has not noticed a decrease since, said Hannah Hill, executive director of Bread Line, which operates Stone Soup Café. In 2019, Stone Soup (which serves two meals per day) served 33,000 meals; more than one meal per day for every Fairbanksan. In 2020, however, they eclipsed that number, serving 48,882 meals.
Typically, the soup kitchen sees more customers in the summer than the winter. This year, though, they operated at summer levels all winter. For the first time ever, Stone Soup had to purchase food because donations were insufficient and resources such as the food bank were stretched thin.
“It was an incredibly difficult year,” Hill said.
Immaculate Conception Church’s soup kitchen saw an 88% increase with the pandemic, said Business Manager Terri Atkins. Prior to the pandemic, ICC served an average of 70 to 80 meals per day. During the pandemic, they sometimes served as many as 200. Atkins noted that there was a rise in families visiting the kitchen, as well as people from the Fairbanks outskirts, whereas before their customer base was nearly entirely homeless individuals.
Currently, mixed reports of food need
The current status of hunger in Fairbanks is less straightforward, with different agencies reporting different trends.
According to Weaver, the food bank’s record-high need levels from last fall began to drop going into the winter. She noted that need decreased when stimulus checks came out, as it did when Alaska began to reopen.
Today, Weaver said, food need is actually lower than initially anticipated. Because “we were already in a bad spot [in 2019]” the numbers now are actually a bit lower than they were before the pandemic began, Weaver explained. She is cautiously optimistic that the drop will continue as more jobs open up.
However, Weaver was clear that the food bank’s troubles are not over, particularly because donations typically drop in summer. A continuing challenge is that food drives (which can generate 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of donations) were cancelled for two years. “March and April 2020 were scary for donations,” she said.
Malone agreed that need began to decrease after last fall, noting that many first-time customers did not return. According to Malone, there was another significant drop in food requests a few months ago. Currently, the Salvation Army delivers eight to 12 boxes per week, which she said is typical for a summer, when requests generally decrease. In fact, the current number is lower than what the Salvation Army averages during other times of year.
At Stone Soup, however, the number of customers hasn’t decreased. Hill said they served 227 meals on May 24, which puts them on the upper side of the 2020 numbers. “It’s a bit much,” she said.
Similarly, Atkins said that the number of people visiting the ICC soup kitchen has risen since this spring. According to Atkins, ICC was serving about 50 meals in March, and now are averaging 120 per day. “It’s really ramping up,” she said. Both Stone Soup and ICC typically see more visitors in the summer months, which could be partially behind this trend.
Hill, though, does not believe food insecurity will disappear with the pandemic. Rather, she suggested the issue points toward underlying societal ills. “I don’t think anything’s going to get better,” she said, unless systemic issues such as mental health are addressed.
A silver lining is that the service agencies, though tested, were able to accommodate the increased need.
“Fairbanks stepped up for sure,” said Hill.
Even without critical food drives, the food bank was able to meet the need and never had to close. Weaver praised the Fairbanks community for finding ways to keep the bank stocked with donations.
“It’s been an interesting wave to ride, but we’ve been able to ride it,” she said.
Contact reporter Maisie Thomas at 459-7544.