Food banks across the United States are experiencing a critical shortage of volunteers as the omicron variant frightens people away from their usual shifts.

Companies and schools across the country that regularly supply large groups of volunteers are canceling their participation over the virus fears.

The end result in many cases has been a serious increase in spending by the food banks at a time when they are already dealing with higher food costs due to inflation and supply chain issues.

The extent of the problem was highlighted this past week during the national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day when many food banks have traditionally organized mass volunteer drives as part of a day of service.

But many food banks chose to cancel their plans this year or continued with radically lower numbers than pre-pandemic years.

In Tallahassee, Florida, plans for a volunteer-driven event on the holiday were abruptly canceled when all the volunteers dropped out. 

Food banks generally use volunteers to sort through donations and to pack ready-made boxes of goods for distribution. It is common practice to arrange for local companies or schools to send over large groups of volunteers, but that has left the system vulnerable to those institutions pulling out all at once.

Even outdoor volunteer work, with seemingly less exposure risk than warehouse work, has suffered. But most of the partnering organizations have suspended their volunteer drives amid the omicron surge.