Food pantries prepare for increased demand, decline in volunteers

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As an increasing number of residents see their hours cut or face being laid off in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, food pantries like Master’s Manna in Wallingford are bracing for a spike in clients seeking groceries and enacting changes to protect staff and visitors.

“We absolutely expect to see more people coming in,” said pantry manager Sue Heald. The pantry served around 75 families Monday, which Heald expected to rise to 90 on Tuesday and continue escalating throughout the week.

The pantry shut down its dining area and marketplace, as well as started screening clients for symptoms before they’re allowed inside. If someone is potentially ill, they must remain in their car and provide a list of what they’re seeking. Staff will retrieve their groceries for them.

Only one family is being allowed inside the pantry at a time and is being asked to follow social distancing procedures with the staff and volunteers inside. Due to the changes, which went into effect on March 16, those planning a visit are asked to call ahead and schedule an appointment, which usually lasts around 10 minutes.

“It slows things down a little bit, but it’s not more difficult overall,” Heald said.

Similar measures are being put in place at food pantries and soup kitchens across the area.

The Southington Food Pantry is continuing to operate on normal hours, however, clients are asked to remain outside and staff will collect groceries on their behalf. The pantries at Grace Place and St. Andrews Episcopal Church, both in Meriden, are operating in the same fashion.

The Meriden Salvation Army is serving to-go meals at its soup kitchen and has expanded its food pantry hours to 9 a.m.-3 p.m. on weekdays. The Cheshire Community Food Pantry has closed and is handling food requests on a case-by-case basis.

Visitors, staff and volunteers at the Connecticut Food Bank are being screened through health questions over a speakerphone in its lobby before being allowed inside its Wallingford facility. The nonprofit supplies around 600 food access points across the state with groceries.

Since many food bank volunteers are members of corporate teams that are now working from home, the food bank has had to press administrative staff into action to help individual volunteers sort bulk food donations into smaller pallets that can be shipped to food pantries across the state, said communications director Paul Shipman.

"We have had some of our programs that have not been able to stay open, mostly because so many of them operate with volunteer support; either some or all of their staff are volunteers,” Shipman said of the food distribution programs they work with. “We have seen the same thing here with the volunteers who help us every day with sorting and packaging food. Some do not feel as comfortable coming out to help as part of the pandemic.”

Meriden resident Jane Weimer continues to volunteer at the food bank even as her sons discouraged her from going out amid the outbreak. She feels it’s more important than ever to make sure people have reliable access to nutrition. The procedures the food bank has taken make her feel confident that she’s safe there, noting they’ve made ample space for everyone to stay six feet apart and have plenty of hand sanitizer available.

"I really feel like we do a good job getting food out to people in need and just because of all this virus going on, it's even more essential that we help those who can't get out or who aren't able to go to a food pantry,” she said. “So unfortunately we're all in a predicament, but the people who have these issues … it's harder for them to get out and get the food that they need.”

Shipman said it’s also become more difficult to source food as shelves empty out in grocery stores, eating into excess stock that could normally be donated. The shortfall has been partially buoyed by more food being received through the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program, however donations still accounted for around 70 percent of the food donated before the outbreak.

Donations have also been down for the food pantry at New Opportunities of Greater Meriden, however what especially worries Director Dona Ditrio is families not being able to afford paying rent and utilities on reduced income. The widely used Connecticut Energy Assistance Program is about to run its course as the winter season comes to a close and her staff has seen a rush of clients seeking assistance applying for aid through Eversource.

"Households are now faced with the fact that ... they no longer have a paycheck, so they don't have money for rent or a mortgage and they have to have groceries and they need to have some kind of heat," she said.

dleithyessian@record-journal.com203-317-2317Twitter: @leith_yessian

"I really feel like we do a good job getting food out to people in need and just because of all this virus going on, it's even more essential that we help those who can't get out or who aren't able to go to a food pantry."

-Jane Weimer

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