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Millions of people can't afford food right now. How to help with coronavirus relief

How to help people, restaurants, food banks and more.

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You can donate food, money and more.

Sarah Tew/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

More than 26 million people in the US have filed for unemployment assistance in the past five weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic closes businesses and keeps residents mostly indoors. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, 37 million people in the US struggled to find enough to eat, according to Feeding America. Now, food banks report running so low on staples they may need to ration their supplies. People who have not previously relied on food aid are also reportedly in greater need, and lines of cars "for miles" have appeared as some wait for hours in order to get food. 

Great need for food assistance during the COVID-19 outbreak is only one effect of the coronavirus' economic and social impacts. Local hospitals and blood banks are also reeling, as they face an urgent shortage of N95 face masks and supply of blood donations respectively. 

It's easy to feel helpless, but there are ways to donate and volunteer safely -- from making monetary donations (some employers will even match these) to remote volunteering. Do know other ways to help out? Share them in the comments below.

For additional resources, here's how to find food assistance now, what to do if you can't pay rent or your car bills and what you need to know about the US stimulus checks going out now that could entitle you to up to $1,200

Food banks: Donate money and food, volunteer

With school closures, shutdowns of nonessential businesses and escalated unemployment, food banks across the country have seen a surge in demand for food aid. Many, like the Food Bank For New York City, are posting urgent requests for donations and volunteer hours -- carefully. Senior citizens, families that rely on school meals and low-income or hourly workers are the most affected groups. 

A $1 donation usually provides between two and five meals, depending on the food bank. Feeding America is another source for food banks across the country that are seeking financial support as part of its response to COVID-19. 

You can also donate canned or other shelf-stable foods like dried beans and pasta, but check your local food bank's protocols first. For example, the SF Marin Food Bank asks that you use your own collection containers and that you deliver the food to one of its warehouses in person. It isn't picking up donations at this time.

Food banks and soup kitchens also need volunteers to pack and serve food and clean the facilities. If you're in a low-risk demographic and don't have contact with people over 60 years old and those with underlying health conditions, signing up for shifts (with the proper precautions) is a significant way to help.

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Hospitals need face masks, hand sanitizer and more

Hospitals are running low on personal protective equipment and are in need of items like N95 respirator masks, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and liquids, soaps, goggles and disposable gloves. If you have an abundance of any of these items in your home or see some at the store, your area hospital might appreciate your help. 

Some hospitals also ask for homemade face masks. Here's everything you need to know about how to make and donate homemade masks, and where you can buy them. If you have a 3D printer, you can help make googles and face shields at home. If you have extra items at home, call your hospital or donation center and ask if and how they're accepting donations.

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Offer to pick up groceries for your neighbors.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Volunteer remotely

Many organizations have remote volunteer opportunities that you can do from home. For example, Alone is an organization that provides companionship to the elderly. You can become a telephone volunteer where you call and check in at least two hours each week. (See more ways to help senior citizens below.)

iCouldBe is a student mentorship program where you dedicate one hour each week for the school year. The program provides you with online activities and conversation starters. This could be especially helpful to students who are completing the year as distance learners, and need extra assistance with resources and tutoring -- or an extra friend. 

You could also volunteer for Crisis Text Line, where you would be a remote crisis counselor. The organization is asking for volunteers especially between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m. PT. The service includes free training on how to answer texts from people who reach out.

Donate blood the safe way

The Red Cross faced a "severe" blood shortage, but thanks to many volunteers, it's been able to meet immediate patient needs. Now it's looking for plasma donations from recovered COVID-19 patients because they have antibodies in their plasma that can attack the virus.

While millions of people across the country have been instructed to avoid nonessential errands, the Red Cross and other blood banks have put precautions in place.

For example, the Red Cross is checking each person's temperature before they enter the building and keeping donors six feet apart. The staff follows protocol by wearing gloves throughout the process and is cleaning surfaces between donors.

One blood bank in Kentucky is following suit, as well as assessing donor health changes since their last visit. They disinfect the donor screening areas, donation beds and equipment throughout the day, and also have a professional thoroughly clean the surfaces each night.

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Buy gift cards and order takeout from local restaurants

Throughout the country, millions of restaurants and bars have closed their doors to in-person visits -- many are still open for takeout and delivery. However, many have been forced to close their doors completely, causing unemployment for many workers.

You can help keep local businesses afloat by ordering take-out or pickup. In New York, bars are allowed to sell take-out alcoholic beverages for a limited time. Websites across the country are popping up to match eaters with restaurants selling gift cards, like Save Our Faves in San Francisco (co-founded by Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger) and Portland SOS, which also features small businesses. GiftBar sells gift cards in a variety of markets around the US. You can also support restaurants by buying their cookbooks.

Smart home security company Ring now has the Neighborhood Pledge where you can pick a business to support during this time. You can pledge to help gather donations for the company, buy gift cards or pledge to eat there once a week.

The concept is that cash infusions now will help businesses weather the storm. You can also search a business's website to look for ways to buy gift cards or make donations. 

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Buy gift cards to local businesses to help keep them afloat while they're closed down.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Donate money to organizations helping with medical costs

The HealthWell Foundation is one nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance to help with prescription co-pays, health insurance premiums, deductibles and coinsurance.

GlobalGiving has a coronavirus relief fund that you can donate to as well. Donations go toward medical supplies, delivering essential items to struggling families and older individuals in quarantined cities, feeding children that rely on school meals and more.

Help your neighbors: Groceries, babysitting, video calls

If you've got elderly neighbors who can't make it to the store, check on them regularly by calling, video chatting or sending a text. Offer to pick up groceries and other supplies and offer to bring them meals several times a week -- you can arrange to leave them on the porch so you don't risk spreading germs. 

You can also offer to take them to doctor appointments (sanitize your car first and have them sit in the back to practice social distancing) or ask if they need you to go to the pharmacy to fill their prescriptions (they'll need to give the pharmacist their permission). 

If your neighbors have kids at home and need babysitting help due to work or appointments, consider making an offer to help, whatever that is -- watching them for an hour, loaning them board games or even helping your neighbor with errands. Note that not everyone feels comfortable asking for help, so approach the subject lightly.

How you can help the elderly in care homes

Individuals over 60 years old and those with underlying medical conditions are at the highest risk for developing severe reactions to the COVID-19 disease. These groups are increasingly self-quarantined. Many nursing homes and other care facilities are now closed to visitors as a measure to protect the residents.

You can help alleviate loneliness with regular phone calls, video calls, video messages and text-based chats. Send photos, fun articles, puzzles, adult coloring books and other items to help keep your loved ones and neighbors feeling connected. Consider establishing an upbeat daily call.

If you don't have a relative living in a nursing home, but would still like to help, you can send flowers, cards or other items to your local care home. Call first to see what their protocol is on outside cookie delivery and drawings from kids. You can also send a letter through an organization called Love for the Elderly.

While helping others during the coronavirus pandemic, it's important that you also take care of yourself. Here's how to help kill the coronavirus in your home, how to help keep coronavirus off your phone and 15 tips to help avoid coronavirus when you go out in public. Also, get up to speed on the most important coronavirus terms you need to know now.

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