The coronavirus pandemic has led to rising food insecurity across the country this year. According to Feeding America, more than 50 million people nationwide will not have "adequate access" to nutritious food during the pandemic.
As part of TODAY's Season of Giving series, TODAY is teaming up with Feeding America to bring awareness to the nationwide crisis. Every dollar donated to Feeding America can provide at least 10 meals, delivered through the organization's network of food banks.
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On Tuesday, Dec. 15, correspondents reported from East Hartford, Chicago and Houston to share ways viewers could help those in need this holiday season. Various TODAY affiliates were also part of the massive event, allowing the show to get a glimpse into food drives all over the country.
TODAY’s food drive extravaganza started in East Hartford, Connecticut, where Al Roker introduced the Connecticut Food Bank, which has distributed millions of pounds of food since April as hunger in the state has increased by almost 30%, according to Jason Jakubowski, who is in charge of food distribution.
Next to appear was Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, who talked about the impact of hunger in her Houston, Texas, community. She said she has participated in two food drives through her gym, which coordinates with the Houston Food Bank to donate necessities.
"It's just crazy, but it feels amazing to give back to my own community and city," she said. "I just don't want anybody to go hungry over the holidays, especially during the pandemic."
In Houston, the second-most food-insecure area in the country, Vicky Nguyen reported from NRG Stadium, where the Houston Food Bank is running a food drive. Nguyen interviewed two college students volunteering at the food drive who said they were glad to give back to their communities.
“Growing up, my family relied on the generosity of others during the holiday season,” one said.
“A lot of people are affected by COVID and not able to work and provide for their family, so just being able to be here and give back has been amazing,” said another.
Nguyen had a surprise for the food bank, which is the largest by distribution in the country: Target donated a truck filled with 15,000 pounds of food, including turkeys, vegetables and more. In total, Target has donated 64 million meals to Feeding America.
"When we're able to get donations like this, it makes a huge difference," said Brian Greene, CEO of the Houston Food Bank.
A similar scene played out in East Hartford: Al Roker introduced a donation of 20,000 meals from PepsiCo. The company has pledged to provide one billion meals to families by 2025.
"This is incredible, Al. ... We're beside ourselves. This is 20,000 meals that will go on tables of people who are hungry in the state of Connecticut," said Jakubowski. "At this time of the year, during this pandemic, this means the world to us."
In Chicago, Morgan Radford walked viewers through the process behind a food drive at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, explaining how food is prepared, packaged and delivered to thousands of local pantries across the city. The depository distributes 300,000 pounds of food daily.
Radford surprised the food bank with yet another truck full of food: 6,000 pounds of food delivered by Conagra, including staples like pasta and flour. Conagra is expected to donate 30 million pounds of food across the Feeding America network by the end of this year.
“(These donations) are going to help a lot of people this holiday season,” Radford said.
The 3rd Hour of TODAY brought another round of donations: In East Hartford, PepsiCo revealed two more trucks full of 20,000 shelf-stable meals. In Houston, another truck from Target provided another 15,000 meals to the Houston Food Bank, and in Chicago, the Greater Chicago Food Depository was surprised with another 6,000 pounds of food and snacks from Conagra.
In total, the surprise trucks provided 70,000 meals and 12,000 pounds of food to the food drives featured on the show.
Back in the studio, Dylan Dreyer, Sheinelle Jones and some celebrity guests continued to highlight the food drive extravaganza during the 3rd Hour of Today.
Music legend Sheryl Crow, who appeared from her home in Nashville, Tennessee, took a moment to talk about just how much Feeding America inspires her and her family.
"To me, it’s the height of what Christmas means," Crow said. "It’s about giving back, it’s about lifting up those who are less fortunate, and right now, especially with my kids, teaching them what Christmas is about, the blessing really is in helping other people with the thing that you completely take for granted: Food on your table. … It’s been really heartwarming to watch how many people have gotten involved with Feeding America."
In Los Angeles, where almost 2 million people are struggling with food insecurity, Jane Lynch said that it’s been "wonderful" to see people come together to feed others.
"To think that there are children in Los Angeles and all over this country, all over the world, is just shocking, and should not be," Lynch said. "Maybe it will take this pandemic for us to focus on this issue of the absolute primacy of the right to be fed."
In 2019, about 35 million people suffered with food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to Feeding America, that number will increase by about 15 million people during the pandemic. Their data, taken from an analysis that looked at food insecurity rates on a state and county level, indicates that one in six people will grapple with the issue and households with children are more likely to struggle. One in four children will be affected by food insecurity.
Food insecurity can be found across every community, and Feeding America notes that many who are affected do not qualify for federal nutrition programs, and instead, rely on local food banks and relief organizations.
"We think about food insecurity and we think about it in places in rural America or the inner city. We're not thinking about the fact that it is your next door neighbor," explained Al. "… You see families come through. It breaks your heart, and we’re going into the holidays. This is the greatest, richest country in the world. This should not be happening."