Demand at local food pantries is spiking as more families are caring for children out of quarantining schools or facing financial hardship amid the pandemic, just as the annual food drives they rely on are having difficulty continuing safely.
“Things are tough right now for a lot of folks, so we’re seeing our numbers increase again,” said Sue Heald, food pantry manager for Master’s Manna in Wallingford. “ … It’s a combination of everything. For some people they’re unemployed and their unemployment benefits are running out.”
The beginning of November has been busy since a spike in clients enrolling at the start of the pandemic in March, complicating an already busy time as the pantry’s volunteers prepare for their Turkey Tossing Two Days program to supply Thanksgiving meals to families. Demand for turkeys is so high that they’re promised to contact families as soon as a donor comes in with one.
Many of their food drives in the spring and summer were canceled, making the remaining drives and the donations they receive from local businesses and individuals all the more critical. The Connecticut Food Bank, Wallingford Police Department and an anonymous donor already pledged a large number of turkeys, and a Boy Scout troop will be returning with their annual food drive on Saturday.
“We do count on the Boy Scout food drive in mid-November to really help get our shelves stocked leading into Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Heald said. To make that event safe amid the pandemic precautions, they’ll have to be in the parking lot rather than collecting food inside the pantry as they have for the past several years.
Paul Shipman, spokesperson for the Connecticut Food Bank, said food drives have been down across the state, as restrictions on gatherings make in-person events more difficult to hold safely and since many residents have become nervous about getting enough food to feed their own families after seeing empty grocery store shelves in March and April.
"We all remember what the stores looked like not too long ago, so those food donations just plunged. And so to maintain a supply and even to hope to meet need, we began purchasing food at a very large scale. It really turned upside the food bank model nationally," he said.
Between April and October, the organization purchased as much food as they had in the previous six years combined to meet a 20 to 30 percent increase in orders from the food pantries they partner with across most of Connecticut. For individuals looking to help, Shipman said financial donations often go further than purchasing extra food to bring into a local pantry or the food bank, since they’re able to acquire food at far lower prices than one would find in a grocery store.
"At Connecticut Food Bank, every dollar that you give us, helps us to buy enough food to provide two meals,” he said. “So if you think about a dollar if you go into a grocery store, even if you were shopping at a wholesale place, it would be not enough food to prepare a meal — you might get two cans of beans. You would not see the variety that we can access for a dollar.”
The food bank’s efforts are being helped by a donation of 1,000 turkeys and $5,000 from Stop and Shop, which was picked up from the Cheshire branch on Tuesday. Standing in front of towering stacks of boxes filled with turkeys in front of the store, Shipman said the timing of the donation was perfect to augment their efforts to distribute 17,000 turkeys ahead of the holiday. On Monday alone the food bank distributed 1,200 turkeys in Norwalk.
Stop and Shop Community Relations Manager Maura O'Brien said they’ve increased the number of turkeys they donate to food banks across the northeast by 4,000 this year to meet the additional need spurred by the pandemic. The turkeys are donated at the corporate level, while local stores made the $5,000 financial donation.
"Every year Stop and Shop provides turkeys to its food bank partners along with other charitable organizations and we want to just be sure that every single person across Connecticut and across the entire northeast has access to a wholesome meal at Thanksgiving,” O’Brien said. “COVID-19 has created a much higher need for many people across the state and being able to support those neighbors in need is very important to us.”
The organizers of Holiday for Giving, a Wallingford program which provides food, toys for children, hygiene items and gift cards to families in need, are preparing for the busiest year in a decade as well. Committee Chairperson Jennifer Lavoie said she expects this Christmas will be the busiest since the mortgage crisis in 2008.
Though they haven’t been able to hold donation drives inside local schools, volunteers created an online Amazon wish list where participants can purchase items rather than donating in-person. Lavoie said in the first week of that being live, they’ve already received a “truck load” of purchases. Collection bins were also placed outside supporting businesses early this year to make up for the reduced foot traffic.
Nonetheless, Lavoie worries that the online food drive won’t yield as many donations as it has in the past, so the committee behind the program has been brainstorming more possible ways of soliciting contributions.
Sorting the items they receive also poses an additional challenge, since only a few people are allowed in the room they’re borrowing from the town Parks and Recreation Department for the processing, due pandemic precautions. In the past, as many as 20 volunteers would be bustling about, but now they have to carefully manage shifts to not overlap.
In Berlin, the Social and Youth Services Department considered canceling its holiday distribution of food, toys and holiday items due to the logistical difficulties of sorting and handing out packages to hundreds of families, however it found that since the program was already run as a drive-through it was fairly easy to modify it to minimize the amount of contact.
By asking individual contributors to give multiples of the same item, rather than an assortment of different things, they were able to cut down on the number of volunteers that would be needed to sort the donations into packages ready to give to families. The number of volunteers present in the Pistol Creek clubhouse on the day of the distribution will also be reduced and they’re focusing on having younger volunteers do more of the work.
“We’re just going to be real slow and deliberate about processing it and stress to everybody involved that we're going to take it one at a time, no rushing, there’s no urgency,” said Doug Truitt, the department’s director.
Truitt has seen similar distribution programs called off when organizers couldn’t find a way to hold it safely and organizers instead mailing gift cards to grocery stores, which the department considered as an alternative. With so many families in need as their stimulus and unemployment money running thin, Truitt said some sort of assistance was clearly needed.
“There’s a lot of people hurting and to pull back — if there was any way to do this safely and not pull back we felt, we needed to do it,” he said.