SPECIAL REPORT: The impact of COVID-19 on hunger in the panhandle

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PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB)–In the early days of COVID-19, grocery stores ran low on many food items or sold out completely. Food pantries and food banks saw shortages too, leaving many families struggling to fight their hunger. While food supplies are back to normal, hunger is still a major problem.

It has long been a huge issue across the panhandle, even before Hurricane Michael hit in 2018.

“It’s right here in the United States. Even though our country is so awesome and wonderful, we still have people right here that have to buy their medicines and can’t purchase food,” said Helen Jackman, a Panama City resident.

Alongside the Coronavirus, hunger has behaved like a shadow pandemic; exposing larger issues and spreading to more people over time.

“We have more homeless individuals and families than ever before,” said Susan Bravo, the Executive Director of the Family Service Agency in Panama City.

“I would say 80% plus are people we never served before,” said Major Ed Binnix with the Salvation Army in Panama City.

As the pandemic took off, stocking up, and in some cases, hoarding food became the new norm. With more people in need, hunger relief organizations, restaurants, and local charities came together.

“There are truckloads of food flowing into our area on an ongoing basis to a point now where there’s more food than need,” said Stephen Fett, the CEO of the Panama City Rescue Mission.

That surplus and the inability to distribute all of the food is revealing pre-existing issues all intensified by the pandemic.

“Hunger is an issue that trickles down from all the other needs. And maybe there is enough food in the county but getting it to the individuals, getting it to that person who is without shelter is the challenge,” said Bravo.

The pandemic has put people out of their jobs and their homes. Not being able to afford food is usually the last stop before homelessness.

“People are going to make that choice: can I buy groceries this week or pay my rent?” said Binnix.

Since March, the area has seen more pop-up food distributions than ever before. But they can only help so many.

“It’s wonderful that there are boxes of produce and meats and milk and eggs, but if you don’t have a place to do anything with that you’re limited to what you can eat,” said Bravo.

Before attempting to eliminate hunger, local relief organizations say we must first fix other shortfalls like transportation.

“They don’t always have the availability to go where the food is being distributed or the transportation to sit in line,” said Sue Bowen who deals with homeless youth as the graduation interventionist for Bay District Schools.

In Bay County, public transportation is limited and will only get people so far.

“What can you actually carry on that trolley to go to the other side of town to get food and then bring it home?” said Bravo.

Often, those who show up to the food distributions find out about it online.

“I saw it on the news last night so watching the news, they announced it there. Other than that, I’m not sure of other ways to find out about it,” said Karen Michala, a Panama City resident attending a food distribution this week.

But what about those who lack technology?

“There’s not a single site with all of the weekly distributions and organizations that are giving out food,” said Fett.

At the end of the day, food is here and ready for those who need it. As long as they’re able to receive it.

“This is one of the richest countries. We have food in abundance,” said Bravo.

“You don’t have to be hungry. We have the capacity to feed the world,” said Binnix.

As for the future, organizations like the Salvation Army and Family Service Agency predict hunger and homelessness will continue to be an issue here in Northwest Florida and around the country if the economy does not recover first.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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