Food banks and pantries saw a surge of need during the pandemic. To keep helping effectively, they’ll have to address systemic shortfalls.

Starting in late March 2020, food banks, pantries, and other charitable food organizations experienced a sharp surge in need. That’s around the time Covid-19 restrictions began causing spikes in unemployment, especially among lower-wage workers who may already have been living paycheck to paycheck. The orgs’ increased needs included traditional food distribution services, but with significantly more first-time clients; services they hadn’t been compelled to offer before, like home deliveries and curbside pickups; and increased volunteer labor, as the generally older, retired volunteer pool stayed home due to illness or fear.

These were just a few of the findings in a study released this May by the Duke World Food Policy Center and advocacy nonprofit WhyHunger. Researchers surveyed 242 organizations in 39 states for a close-up look at the emergency food landscape as it was battered by the pandemic. The study confirmed—no real surprise after snaking lines outside food pantries—that the vast majority of these organizations were overwhelmed by demand.

But embedded in the study’s data is some revolutionary news: 68 percent of frontline organizations like food pantries and 80 percent of hunger advocacy organizations believe they should focus more effort on tackling the root causes of food insecurity, including poverty and structural racism within the food system. Yes, they’d been largely able to get ever more sustenance to food-insecure Americans during the last chaotic year. But they also recognized that charitable feeding cannot go on as it currently exists.

Katie Martin, executive director of the Foodshare Institute for Hunger Research and Solutions, and author of Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries, called this philosophical shift “exciting and encouraging.” In the past, many anti-hunger organizations have made the straightforward decision to focus largely on the most pressing need: food distribution. But due to the pandemic and a renewed awareness of racial and economic injustices, “people are realizing we have to think beyond food,” Martin said. And charitable food operations are recognizing they need  to advocate for the very changes that would improve outcomes in their sector.

Read the full article about priorities of food banks by Lela Nargi at The Counter.