Fidelity Charitable Expert Series: Helping donors think short, and long-term, about the current food crisis

Child hands holding a handful of blackberries

When donors asked me for guidance on the most current strategies to eliminate hunger, I spent 2019 crisscrossing the country, learning from nonprofits that fight food insecurity from all angles and reporting back on effective ways to give.

These major donors had all articulated to me an interest in “food.” But when I pressed them to further define what that meant, they were unsure of where to focus or what the food landscape looked like. To help them build the most effective strategies, I explored various food interventions such as free food programs in public schools and on college campuses, policy and advocacy work, the “food is medicine” movement, food rescue initiatives, sustainable agriculture, and food banks, among others. Food or feeding the hungry sounds simple on the surface—meeting one of the most basic of human needs—but dig deeper and it is a snarled challenge with complex root causes.

The catastrophic impact of a pandemic

Then COVID-19 hit. With a strained food supply chain, the cost of groceries skyrocketing and unemployment numbers remaining at an all-time high, the impact was immediate and catastrophic. Overnight, food insecurity rates increased, with Feeding America projecting that COVID’s impact could lead to 1 in 6 Americans going hungry, including 1 in 4 children1.

The increase in demand on food banks, pantries and meal delivery programs occurred within weeks. The economic shocks that have been reverberating through families for generations were further exacerbated because of the pandemic. From early March through May, Feeding America’s 200 food banks across the country provided nearly 1 billion meals. Since 40% of individuals supported by these food banks are new to free food organizations2, they were not only asking for food but also in need of education and guidance on how food assistance programs work.

One such food bank serves eastern Massachusetts, a state that historically has had the highest cost for groceries in the U.S. The Greater Boston Food Bank saw a 60% increase in demand from the 550 pantries and partners it serves. In fact, the Greater Boston Food Bank’s distribution has increased more than in any two-month span in its 40-year history, distributing 3 million more pounds of food in April 2020 than April 2019. It is no wonder the demand on such free food organizations has increased dramatically – according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of groceries grew 2.6% in April alone, the largest monthly increase since 19743

Putting food on the table—ASAP

There was no longer time to further expand upon a perfect, fully vetted grantmaking strategy for those donors I had engaged just months before – the need was immediate and clear. Starting in early March, our donors were galvanized into action, not only recommending grants but seeking guidance on how to mobilize.

Seeing the need in their communities across the United States, our donors have recommended grants totaling nearly $4 billion this year to date. For the majority of states in the United States, the most supported non-profit by Fidelity Charitable donors during this time period administered a free food program. Nationally, grants from Fidelity Charitable designated for these food programs have increased 667% thus far this year. In some states, such as Mississippi, Nebraska, Hawaii and New Hampshire, grant dollars recommended by Fidelity Charitable donors to such food organizations increased by an astounding 1,000% compared to previous years. 

Most popular charitable sector in each state


United States map showing that Religion was the most popular charitable sector in the majority of states in the first four months of 2019. Human Services was most popular in seven, while Education was most popular in four.


United States map showing that Human Services was the most popular charitable sector in 21 states in the first four months of 2020 as the pandemic spread and support for food banks increased. Religion was most popular in the remainder of states.

Ensuring a better future

So, what now? Many non-profits are fearing that the incredible generosity shown since COVID struck will start to slow based on a false sense of “normalcy” in some states. In addition, non-profits worry that giving will plateau or decline based on overall donor fatigue for those who have been giving since the pandemic began. Another concern is that with the focus on emergency food aid and the basic necessity of access to food, the broader systemic issues related to food and the organizations working against those needs will be underfunded.

For example, Community Servings, based in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, is rooted in the mission of “food is medicine,” originating from the local Jewish community in the support of AIDS patients in the 1980s. Today, Community Servings still focuses their work on the chronically and critically ill who otherwise would not have access to nutritiously cooked food. The efficacy of Community Servings’ medically tailored meals was recently highlighted in the medical journal JAMA – Internal Medicine, which noted that such meals reduced healthcare costs for these patients by 16.4 percent.

At a macro level, there are organizations like MEANS, a digital database that quickly uncovers excess food through various partners and instantly offers a solution to local free food organizations in all 50 states. There are other organizations similarly focusing on the incredible opportunity for food recovery, including Feeding America and the Global Foodbanking Network, which estimates that globally, if food waste could be reduced by just 25%, hunger could be eliminated.

These needs still exist and these kinds of organizations will be even more critical to recovery as, unfortunately, the impact of COVID will reverberate for years to come. Craig Gundersen, professor and economist at the University of Illinois and an analyst for Feeding America, recently remarked that it took 10 years for the United States to recover from the food insecurity rates of the Great Recession, and that by the end of 2020, any progress that had been made in hunger since the Recession will have been wiped out.

The momentum and inspiring generosity of donors must be maintained in the months and years ahead so that the over 40 million Americans4 who are food insecure have access to food and dignity—and that giving will need to include the full spectrum of organizations addressing the issue from different angles. For those donors who were considering shifting their focus to “food” organizations, or for those who already give in this space, there is no time better than now to go deeper: to understand the larger food system, how the various interventions are interconnected, and, ultimately, the dire need to strengthen and stabilize this entire system. We need to ensure that if another recession or pandemic strikes, the situation is not as catastrophic.

Written by: Philanthropic Strategist, Fidelity Charitable Private Donor Group





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