As the disruption of the coronavirus ripples through the economy, some local food pantry operators are seeing more demand for their services, and some pantries have been forced to close.
The pandemic has lead to other challenges. Some pantries have seen their volunteer ranks thin as people seek to steer clear of crowds. And they’ve struggled to find safe ways to provide food to vulnerable people while health officials are stressing the importance of social distancing.
“Right now, we are seeing people come in who have never used our system, but they have a need now, and we don’t turn anyone away,” said Doug Pick, president and CEO of Feed More, on Thursday. “We’ve seen, probably, a 25 to 30 percent increase in need.”
Pick said he suspects part of the increase in foot traffic to food pantries has been driven by out-of-work restaurant workers, people who have been hard hit by the coronavirus. Pick said 20 of the 270 agencies who receive food from Feed More have decided to close amid the coronavirus concerns.
Pick said he does not expect the pantry closings to reach 60, but that officials are preparing to deal with further closings. Many agencies in Feed More’s service area, of 29 counties and five cities in Virginia, are run by churches, he said. And while some churches have stopped offering services over concerns about the coronavirus, they are still trying to keep their pantries open.
“Many agencies are trying mightily to stay open, so we will not lose all of our agency network, but we do know it will probably continue to reduce,” Pick said.
Some of the shuttered pantries are in the Richmond area, although he declined to name them. Feed More, which runs a Meals on Wheels program, has seen its own drop in volunteers, and the nonprofit has been using its staff to fill in some volunteer positions.
Pick estimated that 80 of the nonprofit’s normal roster of 200 volunteers have opted not to come in. Corporations who have been providing volunteers are now urging employees to work from home to limit their contact with others.
“Many of our volunteers are over 60 and so more and more, you are finding those folks removing themselves from a lot of social contact also,” Pick said. “Of course that’s a loss. A lot of people are still coming.”
At Feed More, the nonprofit is instituting its own social distancing regimen among volunteers, keeping their groups of helpers to under 20. The group boxes up food donations at its Rhoadmiller Street site in Richmond for distribution around its coverage area, which goes from an area near Charlottesville in the west, just south of Fredericksburg to the north, and down to the North Carolina line.
Feed More is now delivering frozen meals that can be kept frozen and then heated, which cuts down on the frequency of Meals on Wheels visits.
Meanwhile, the Chesterfield Food Bank has changed its distribution method. Instead of having clients come in to the Chester facility, the food bank is having them drive up so volunteers can bring the food to their vehicles, said executive director Kim Hill. Hill said the coronavirus is already testing the nonprofit’s resources.
“We normally feed over 2,000 people a week with all our programs,” Hill said Thursday. “And we are expecting a serious increase.”
Hill said food donations from grocery stores, typically its biggest donors, have been down because those businesses saw inventory drop as people stocked up to hunker down at home.
“It’s had a tremendous impact as far as donations are concerned,” Hill said.
She said her group is not having trouble finding volunteers, and that she’s been getting calls from Chesterfield County teachers while schools are closed who are interested in donating time. Sometimes people working from home have a hour or so to volunteer during the day, she said.
Hill added her group could use food donations, adding that if people can’t gather food, they could provide financial support at www.chesterfieldfoodbank.org.
Pick said Feed More could use volunteers. If people wish to contribute to the nonprofit, Pick said it would prefer money, adding that food donations need to be sorted, which requires volunteer time. Information on how to donate or volunteer for Feed More can be found at www.feedmore.org.
Bridget Meador, director of the Meadowood Church of God Food Pantry in Henrico County, said her pantry’s food donations have actually picked up because stores such as Kroger, Publix and Food Lion have more to give, due to other pantries having suspended operations.
Meador said her food pantry will limit the number of people who can be inside at one time while other clients will wait outside for their turn to come in. Foods such as bread, sweets and vegetables will be prepackaged, so clients won’t be choosing those specific items.
“It’s going to affect our food pantry because we don’t want to expose people to any potential risk,” Meador said. “But we also don’t want to not distribute food to people who need it.”
At the Neighborhood Resource Center in the Fulton Hill neighborhood in eastern Richmond, executive director Breanne Armbrust said her nonprofit is seeking ways to safely distribute food. She said her group is shifting to a plan in which food would be provided on a block-by-block basis in the greater Fulton area.
“I’ve been taking bags of food, our emergency food, out to residents myself,” Armbrust said.
Armbrust said that while out in the community, people have told her they have not eaten in days because those who used to deliver their meals aren’t doing so amid the coronavirus concerns.
Armbrust said that on Monday, her group will start dropping off food at people’s homes. She said she has been working with neighborhood associations and has been seeking block captains who could pick up food using gloves and then drop it off on front porches. Armbrust said her group is seeking monetary support at www.nrccafe.org to boost the deliveries to 500 meals a day.
At a mobile food pantry in Charles City, where roughly 20% of residents don’t know where their next meal is coming from, according to a recent county health coalition report, there’s been increased demand.
Grocery stores “have been selling out themselves, so they don’t have the volume that they normally have,” said Vance Jones, coordinator of the pantry and associate pastor of St. John Baptist Church on Roxbury Road. “And there’s an overwhelming need right now.”
“With the kids being out of school, the need doubled because these kids are at home and they need food at home,” Jones said.
The county school system has tried to fill the void. The district said in a message to parents Wednesday that grab-and-go meals, both breakfast and lunch, will be available for pickup at Charles City High School starting from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday.
While the Charles City school system is maxing out at 100 meals per day, more meals are being offered at Memorial United Methodist Church and Apple Blossom Inn, the district said, with the church offering quart containers of homemade chicken soup for county families and the inn providing extra food.
At a New Kent County food pantry that serves residents there and in Charles City, there has been a “noticeable” difference in the amount of food donated. That’s according to Kelli Lieder, who runs the New Hope Food Pantry in Providence Forge along with her husband, Neil, the lead pastor of New Hope Church.
“We are experiencing a shortage, but we’re at the beginning stages of that,” said Lieder.
Before the pandemic, people who came to the pantry would be able to take an estimated $150 to $300 worth of groceries and go into outdoor tents to shop for what they prefer. Now cars line up off Parish Road and receive grocery bags filled by volunteers. The pantry is experimenting with giving people in their cars a menu and having volunteers fill the bags based on the recipients’ preferences.
“We understand that people have preferences and special dietary needs, so we like for them to be able to get their own food,” she said. “That isn’t possible right now.”