BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation gives $3.25 million to state's food relief efforts affected by coronavirus crisis

Food awaits distribution to people in need at the food pantry established in East Ridge by East Ridge United Methodist Church along with another area church. Former ERUMC pastor Ken Sauer, now pastor at Red Bank United Methodist, is now partnering with other Red Bank churches to create the Red Bank Community Food Pantry. / Contributed photo by Ken Sauer

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With schools and many work sites closed and more people out of work due to the coronavirus, the Chattanooga Food Bank anticipates the number of area residents seeking food assistance will surge by 30%.

To continue to provide enough meals for its partner agencies in the 20-county Chattanooga region, the local food bank estimates it will cost an extra $100,000 a month, and possibly even more if food donations from local businesses are suspended.

Tennessee's biggest health insurer announced Wednesday it is coming to the aid of the local food bank with the largest single gift at one time ever for the agency. The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Chattanooga-based health insurer, is giving $3.25 million to a half dozen food banks across Tennessee, including $500,000 to the Chattanooga Food Bank.

"This gift will give life-sustaining nourishment to thousands of people," said Sophie Moore, director of community outreach and healthcare partnership at the Chattanooga Area Food Bank. "This will allow us to purchase pre-packaged boxes to allow us to get this food into the hands of those that need it much faster and it will literally save lives in our area."

The state of Tennessee declared a state of emergency to facilitate the treatment and containment of COVID-19, a global pandemic, on March 12. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the demand for food assistance is expected to increase with school closures and time away from work.

According the the data collected for the Kids Count by the Anne B. Casey Foundation, 46.6% of all Tennessee students in public schools qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches at their schools.

BlueCross announced the grants a day after the Community Foundation launched a $650,000 Community Response and Resilience Fund to benefit coronavirus relief in the area. Working with the McKenzie, Maclellan, Benwood and Weldon F. Osborne Foundations, along with Truist bank, the fund will help aid a variety of relief programs, including the Chattanooga Food Bank.

Last year, the Chattanooga food bank distributed nearly 15.7 million pounds of food, which equates to about 13 million meals, through more than 200 partner agencies.

FeedingAmerica, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that feed more than 46 million people, estimates that in the Chattanooga area one if eight persons - and one in five children - is food challenged and unsure where some meals will be available each day.

That shortage is worsening since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closing of Chattanooga schools, stores and other businesses.

"With school being out and children unable to get their free and reduced meals and with more people out of work, we have projected a tremendous increase in the demand for our services," Moore said. "We're seeing a lot more people coming through our doors for emergency help."

JD Hickey, chairman of the BlueCross Foundation and CEO of the Chattanooga-based health insurer, said food banks can often purchase supplies at a much lower cost than individuals can, stretching to provide as many as four meals for each dollar they receive in cash donations.

"Every day, families count on local food banks for help - and that's especially true now," Hickey said Wednesday in an announcement of the food bank grants. "Tennesseans can get through these challenging times by coming together, and we're expanding our support for food banks statewide as another way to bring peace of mind to our neighbors."

The food bank gets funding support from a variety of sources and food donations from many retailers and manufacturers. If those food donors suspend operations, the extra cost to meet all of the food needs in the region could end up costing the food bank nearly $400,000 more a month, Moore said.

The foundation supported by BlueCross said it will distribute food relief funds to the following organizations:

$750,000 to Second Harvest Food Bank (Nashville)

$750,000 to Mid-South Food Bank (Memphis)

$500,000 to Chattanooga Area Food Bank

$500,000 to Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee (Knoxville)

$500,000 to Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee (Tri-Cities)

$250,000 to Regional Inter-Faith Association (Jackson)

Community members who want to help can find and donate to their local food bank by visiting