More Demand, Less Supply

Coronavirus conditions have made feeding the hungry a bigger challenge

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In these days of COVID-19 restrictions, organizations that provide food for the hungry are being squeezed from several directions.

Not only is demand up, as more area residents are jobless. But food donations from grocery stores and elsewhere are down, and so is the supply of another essential: volunteers. Many of these volunteers are over 65 and thus prohibited from helping out. Nor, with the closure of the University of North Carolina Wilmington campus, is there a pool of college student volunteers.

“We scramble,” says ROXANNE LANSDOWNE (pictured above), board chair of Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard food pantry in downtown Wilmington.  “Almost all of our volunteers are over 65. We are applying CDC and Food Bank (of Central and Eastern North Carolina) safety rules that say anybody over 65 or with pre-existing conditions, or anyone who is taking care of (sick) family members, must stay at home.”

Normally, the all-volunteer Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard operates five days a week, drawing from a roster of about 450 volunteers. These days, Lansdowne says, “I have trouble getting ten.”

In January, Mother Hubbard served 3,400 people.

To manage, the pantry has scaled down to just two days a week, although it has expanded its hours slightly. And, because several other area food pantries have closed, Mother Hubbard’s client numbers are climbing, Lansdowne says. Volunteers between the ages of 60 and 65 can work indoors packing food boxes, but those working outside, interacting with clients, must be younger.

Brunswick Family Assistance Center, a private nonprofit that operates food pantries in Shallotte and Leland, typically has a pool of 150-200 volunteers. During the current pandemic, however, the organization is operating without volunteers.

Executive Director STEPHANIE BOWEN says the agency has restructured so its daily operations can be handled by its staff of four full-time and nine part-time employees.

Working remotely on their cell phones, the center’s intake staffers process requests for food or financial assistance. They schedule six food pickup appointments per hour. When clients show up, they hold up their IDs to the car window and a staff member brings their food box out. Once the staffer is back inside the building, the client retrieves the food box.

“It’s definitely a lot of work,” Bowen says, explaining that in any given month, BFA serves between 2,000 and 3,500 households with food and stop-gap financial help. “I could not be prouder of the staff we have. Their attitude has been ‘What can I do to help?’ Their dedication and commitment throughout this COVID-19 (pandemic) have been impressive, especially since many have young children themselves, who are at home, out of school.

“I feel really blessed.”

The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina at Wilmington serves as a clearinghouse for food donations that is distributed to 100 food pantries and other partners in Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover, and Pender counties.

Director BETH GAGLIONE says her organization has reduced the size of its volunteer crew from twenty or twenty-five to five, to be able to fill its shifts and keep people sufficiently separated.

“But when we’re used to relying on twenty people and we whittle it down to five, we’re not producing as much as we traditionally would,” she says. “We’re essentially doing half the work, which impacts how much food is available on any given day.”

Social distancing requirements have forced other changes as well. The organization has had to limit personal contact.

“We have always been a shop-able food bank,” Gaglione says, explaining that, normally, the pantries it serves send shoppers to walk through the warehouse and see what’s on the shelves and pallets, ask questions, and compile their orders based on what their clients can use.

“With COVID-19, we’re having to take their orders online and build out their orders from the inventory we have available,” she adds. “There’s not a ton of variety at this point because of the decrease in grocery store donations. Maybe it’s not food they would choose to take, but our partners have rolled with those punches amazingly well.”

The pantries themselves are adjusting not only their inventory but also their processes to reflect social distancing rules and use available volunteers efficiently.

These days, Mother Hubbard uses a hybrid food distribution system, with a monitored walk-up window that preserves distance between clients, and a parking lot delivery option for clients with cars. For these recipients, volunteers act as carhops, bringing food boxes out to them.

Lansdowne laments the lack of available food for those with diabetes, but says Mother Hubbard is getting fresh produce from the Food Bank. Diabetic clients get plenty of this, along with minimally processed food basics.

All-volunteer St. Joseph Food Pantry in Burgaw has switched from a walk-in to a drive-thru model, and director PATRICIA KOPCHICK says it’s working well.

“People don’t get out of their cars. Our lady volunteers to go each car and register them, and the men volunteers put the food in the car,” Kopchick explains. “We are operating with a skeleton team, but with the drive-thru we don’t need as many people.”

St. Joseph is open only on Thursdays, but has expanded its three-hour time frame to match volunteer capacity to increased demand.

Managing the food supply has been challenging, according to Kopchick. St. Joseph, like Brunswick Family Assistance and Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, purchases much of its food from the Food Bank at greatly reduced prices. But it also has relied on donations of food and money from St. Therese Roman Catholic Church in Wrightsville Beach and All Saints Catholic Church in Hampstead.

“Those food donations have now dried up because the churches are closed, but we are seeing more cash donations,” Kopchick says. And, with the advent of the growing season, she adds, St. Joseph clients who are farm workers are getting back in the fields, easing their financial situation a bit.

A big problem St. Joseph faces is lack of space to store perishables, since it has only one refrigerator. A new cooler – a gift from St. Therese – is on order, but without sufficient volunteers right now, the food pantry can’t increase its capacity.

“Every week we have some produce donated, and sometimes the food bank will give us fresh eggs when we pick up on Tuesdays,” Kopchick says. “The Piggly Wiggly in Burgaw has allowed us to store eggs in their cooler space between Tuesday and Thursday.”

Also deferred, like the cooler, is St. Joseph’s plan to become part of the state’s Healthy Pantry Program, in which volunteers would invite clients into the church hall ahead of food distribution to give them information about nutrition, special diets for conditions like obesity and diabetes, and to provide samples of the food available that week.

Demand from one week to the next, says Kopchick, is unpredictable. When she became director in January 2019, the pantry served an average of 80 families each week. This past winter saw an average of 100 families per week.

“Now it’s totally unpredictable,” she says, citing weekly highs of 129 families and lows of 52 families. “We never know how many people are going to need food.”


To view more of photographer Terah Wilson’s work, go to terahwilson.com.

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Categories: Women to Watch