Though it’s just a four-minute drive across the lagoon from Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s private club, and ten minutes from the Palm Beach outposts of Chanel and Louis Vuitton, Howley’s diner has become an emblem of America’s stark new economic reality.
With more than 10 million people across the nation suddenly unemployed, bread lines are forming in the shadows of privileged enclaves like this one in Florida.
For the past two weeks, the kitchen staff at Howley’s has been cooking up free meals—the other day it was smoked barbecue chicken with rice and beans, and salad—for thousands of laid off workers from Palm Beach’s shuttered restaurants and resorts. The rows of brown-bag lunches and dinners are an early warning that the country’s income gap is about to be wrenched wider as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, and the deep recession it has brought with it.
Even as much of America is fretting about supermarket shelves depleted of their favorite cereal brands and toilet paper or the logistics of curbside pickup from favorite restaurants, a brutal new hunger crisis is emerging among laid-off workers that has begun to overwhelm the infrastructure that normally takes care of the needy.
“We’re seeing about a 650% increase in our request for support,” said Sari Vatske, executive vice president of Feeding South Florida, which before the pandemic was already serving more than 700,000 people a year in four counties including Palm Beach County. “The growth is exponential.”
The surge in demand is not just in Palm Beach. Food banks around the world have recorded increases in requests for assistance as government-ordered lockdowns have started to bite, prompting employers to lay off staff.
Food insecurity was already a chronic problem in many U.S. communities. Across the U.S. 14.3 million households were short of food in 2018, the last year for which government data are available. That equates to just over one in ten American households. For Black and Hispanic households the rate is closer to one in five.