Food Insecurity in the Pandemic: The story of my friend Ronnie
Danny Goldberg, Founder of ZoomersToBoomers
10 PM. My phone lights up, the words “unknown caller” crossing the screen. I answer the phone, and hear a quiet voice on the other end. “Hi Danny, my name is Ronnie — I need your help.”
Ronnie is a 92-year-old woman who lives alone. When the pandemic hit my hometown of Santa Barbara, she followed the CDC guidelines. She stayed home to avoid coming into contact with COVID-19. As a result, she nearly ran out of food. ”Danny, I’m calling you because I need some help. I’m on my last can of soup. I don’t know if I can make it through the week.”
For Ronnie and millions of older adults and immunocompromised, the pandemic made an already dire situation worse. In early 2020, there were few options for grocery delivery. Older adults and immunocompromised community members were left without a plan for meeting their basic needs. As the pandemic continued through the summer months, grocery delivery services became more popular, but with an extra cost bordering on extortionate. Mainstays like Amazon Fresh and Wal-Mart have minimum orders of at least $30, and have additional delivery fees; others like Instacart jack up prices, so much so that a Washington Post editor found herself paying as much as 20% more for certain grocery items, on top of her Instacart membership and service fees. With few options, older adults, especially those living on a fixed income, were unable to pay hefty minimums or prices well above standard grocery store prices.
On March 18, 2020, about one week after Santa Barbara went into lockdown, I founded ZoomersToBoomers, a free grocery delivery service for the elderly and immunocompromised.
Email requests started pouring in immediately. Senior citizens, cancer patients, and immunocompromised people reached out for help. To keep up with ever-increasing demand, I began working almost nonstop. Days were spent in long grocery lines and evenings were filled speaking with anxious customers and organizing the next day’s deliveries (sometimes up to 100 deliveries per day). I built a network of repeat clients, who began relying on us more as the weeks of lockdown turned into months.
As ZoomersToBoomers grew in Santa Barbara, word began to spread to other areas of the country. Soon after, we launched sites in Denver, Miami, Los Angeles, and Oahu. I created a local management team to streamline the growth process, and our easy to navigate website and franchise model meant new branch leaders could move at breakneck speed to meet their community’s needs. Working with my team in Santa Barbara, we helped guide other teens around the country to organize new branches, ensuring that at-risk groups could stay safe.
In just four months, ZoomersToBoomers scaled from a city-wide initiative to an international organization serving 38 cities. To date, more than 1,000 volunteers have formed relationships with over 15,000 at-risk members of our communities to keep our older adults and immunocompromised population safe.
ZoomerstoBoomers was far from the only grassroots organization created to meet this urgent need. Over the past year, we’ve seen the launch of Teens Helping Seniors, Helping Hands Community, Invisible Hands Deliver, Deliver Together, and many others. And our work is far from done. While there is no hard data yet on the effects COVID had on food insecurity, it is projected that the previous 5 million adults suffering from food insecurity has tripled. With the rise of the Delta variant, the FDA recently issuing guidance for immunocompromised adults to get a booster shot, and more variants on the horizon, it begs the question: who is responsible for keeping older adults and immunocompromised people safe? Are there ways to connect the grassroots organizations that sprang up during the pandemic, and provide some structure and expertise as needed, to strengthen their impact so that more people can be helped?
As it stands now, the responsibility has fallen to the hands of nonprofits — organizations that don’t have nearly enough resources and staff or volunteers to meet the astronomical need, especially given that many of the organizations listed above, like my own, are student-run. While student volunteers are an effective work force, there is natural turnover that creates a challenge for the sustainability of these organizations. Many of the leaders of ZoomerstoBoomers across the country were high school juniors when we began the organization in March of 2020. A year and a half later, we, along with many of our volunteers, will be starting college. That leaves organizations like mine on shaky ground during this transition. This loss of momentum risks stranding the people who have come to depend on us.
As President Biden and Congress debate infrastructure, they must center people like my friend Ronnie — people who are struggling the most to afford or access food, especially during the pandemic. The coordination of the federal government, nonprofit groups, and local grassroots organizations like mine is what is needed to care for Americans with the greatest need during pandemics and other emergencies. If our government had an agency, with a sizable budget, focused on the needs of this population during emergencies and pandemics, ZoomerstoBoomers and organizations like it could have reached out early on in the crisis for guidance and support. While agencies already exist to support people experiencing poverty, many of the people we met through ZoomerstoBoomers didn’t qualify for these programs, despite serious need.
To come out of the pandemic stronger than before, the federal government should implement a food insecurity task force dedicated to keeping older adults and immunocompromised people fed throughout the rest of this pandemic and pandemics to come. A pandemic food insecurity task force could work closely with nonprofit groups who have already had a big impact in meeting the needs in their communities. This task force could also increase the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot’s reach to offset the cost of groceries delivered by a private organization such as Instacart for all elderly and immunocompromised.
By providing government backing to the non-profits already formed to deliver groceries, organizations share oversight and resources, helping to optimize their growth, and incorporate the many nonprofit groups throughout the U.S. under one umbrella organization with access to funding and strategic support. By reaching the entire nation with a united front, we would be able to significantly lessen food insecurity in the elderly. This would also address the problem of the uncertain future many of these organizations face, as their teen work force transitions to the next phase of their life, and many founders would have an easier time passing the leadership reins and replacing volunteers who had left. Keeping these organizations strong, we could continue to help not only during this pandemic, but also with emergencies that we may face in our future, such as natural disasters.
Our society is not survival of the fittest. We cannot continue telling Ronnie, and all of those like her to shelter in place without providing necessary support. Never again can we allow them to go hungry, fearful of going out to get food. Infrastructure must be put in place to keep our seniors and immunocompromised people safe, both during COVID-19 and future pandemics. ZoomersToBoomers has allowed Ronnie to stay safe at home for this pandemic. By working together, organizations created due to necessity can be supported to help not only Ronnie, but all of those at risk in our communities. Too many people are counting on us to use the same old methods — we must learn, innovate, and move forward.