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Food pantries see increase in use, face drop-off in volunteers

Food pantries see increase in use, face drop-off in volunteers

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More people are using food pantries since being laid off or having their hours reduced because of the coronavirus pandemic, and these nonprofits have fewer volunteers on hand because of people staying home to protect themselves.

Six new families came to the Open Door Mission food pantry in Glens Falls on Thursday for the first time, which is not usual, according to President and CEO Kim Cook.

A total of 63 people showed up that day, which makes 109 people served for the month so far. Cook said that is ahead of last month, when the agency served 169 for the whole month.

“There are a lot of people who are being cut back at work or laid off completely,” she said.

The food pantry served 1,100 people in 2019.

The pantry is open Monday and Thursday afternoons on Warren Street.

Cook said procedures have been changed to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

Open Door is asking people seeking to use the pantry to call ahead at 518-792-5900 to let the agency know they are coming. Volunteers and staff will collect the items rather than allowing families to get them off the shelves as they would in a grocery store.

In addition, the Open Door shifted to doing takeout meals once a day at the soup kitchen on Lawrence Street. But Cook is encouraging more use of the pantry on Warren Street.

“We would rather that those who can cook get a week’s worth of food and just stay home,” she said.

The Loaves and Fishes Cambridge Food Pantry is also seeing an increase in people seeking help.

“I got a call from someone down in Troy. They lost their job at a fast food restaurant. We really try to meet the need wherever it’s there,” said Jim Bartholomew, the president of the board of directors.

The pantry also has changed its procedures for collecting food, according to Bartholomew.

“We usually have people come in and pick what they want. Obviously that’s not the best thing to do,” he said. “We have volunteers packing up the food boxes, and folks are out in the parking lot with their cars. We bring it to them and they can load up their cars without having any contamination.”

Volunteers decreasing

Bartholomew said the pantry also has seen a drop-off in its volunteers, which includes a contingent of senior citizens who have decided they should not go out in public. There are only two or three volunteers in the building at one time to limit exposure.

Warren-Hamilton Counties Community Action is also seeing a drop in volunteers as people are trying to limit contact, according to Executive Director Lynn Ackershoek.

“We usually have five or six volunteers in here every day. We have none at the moment,” she said.

Ackershoek said she is even noticing a drop-off in people using the pantry, even though she believes demand has increased. She said she believes it is a sign that people want to stay away from crowds to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Open Door could always use more volunteers, but Cook said it is important that they are not in a high-risk health category to guard against spread of the virus.

“We’re keeping things very clean. We’re trying to make sure that our volunteers are safe to come,” she said.

Food shortages

The Open Door Mission food pantry has been pretty well-stocked, but is starting to get low on peanut butter, jelly, tuna fish and canned soups, according to Cook.

“We’re seeing people coming in who are not able to get things in the grocery store,” she said, adding that that includes toilet paper.

Earlier in the week, the first two women in line were mothers who could not get the brand of infant formula they need for their Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, supplemental nutrition vouchers.

Cook said the pantry does not normally take infant formula, but it just happened to have the exact brand needed on hand. She worried about a prolonged disruption to people’s financial situation because of the coronavirus.

“Right now we’re good, but if this continues beyond the next three or four weeks, we’re really going to be seeing some bare shelves,” she said.

Ackershoek said the Warren-Hamilton Counties Community Action pantry is starting to see some shortages as local supermarkets have fewer products such as meat, produce and bread left to donate because they have been cleaned out.

“I’m hoping that production steps up and their stores are once again supplied,” she said.

Fortunately, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York is still operating and the agency will get some more donations at the beginning of April, according to Ackershoek.

Ackershoek said people have to realize that a container of strawberries is not going to last a month. They are buying up perishables and hoarding food, which is going to go to waste, she said.

Bartholomew said his pantry in Cambridge is fully stocked at the moment, but its supply of frozen meals and bread is diminishing.

Stress on nonprofits

Bartholomew said another negative effect of the coronavirus pandemic is the organization cannot do its dinner fundraisers for the time being.

“We paid the bills this month but it’s going to be a little bit hard,” he said.

Bartholomew said the pantry is going to continue as long as it can.

“We don’t want to stop. Now more than ever the food is pantry is relevant,” he said.

Duane Vaughn, executive director of the Tri-County United Way, said the organization is reaching out to the 30-plus food pantries in the area to see what their needs are.

“It’s difficult times. It’s tough on everybody right now. Our nonprofits are without a doubt feeling this too,” he said.

Vaughn said one of the United Way’s main goals is making sure the community knows what resources are available. He stressed that it is important that people call 211 for assistance.

“They get a live operator. If they let the operator know what their need is — whether it’s housing or food, or whatever the need might be — that operator will direct them to the agency that’s closest to them,” she said.

Vaughn said the United Way wants to stay in communication with all these local nonprofits to know what they need during this fast-moving situation.

“A plan that could be made today could be completely different tomorrow, and we’re trying the best we can to make sure we stay in front of this,” he said.

Reach Michael Goot at 518-742-3320 or mgoot@poststar.com and follow his blog poststar.com/blogs/michael_goot/.

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