While many are laid off from their jobs and supermarkets rush to refill their shelves, local food donation organizations are also scrambling to provide a growing necessary service.
“It’s more important than ever to let people know where they can access food,” said Katie Patrick, executive director of the Grove Christian Outreach Center. “We want to make sure food is accessible and that people feel safe in knowing where to go when facing a choice between food and no food.”
Grove Christian Outreach Center has been serving a community that is composed of low-income families for years.
Typically, the program relies on volunteers to provide food for the community but last Monday, Patrick had to make the difficult decision to cut volunteers. She said the decision was made after a volunteer’s wife tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19) and that she wanted to protect the safety of volunteers and limit community spread.
Now, the work of hundreds of volunteers has been shouldered onto a staff of only four.
As a result, the organization has had to cut other programs, such as the clothing closet, in order to make sure food is being provided to the families in need.
“It’s humbling,” she said. “But we have to focus on food. These other programs, while they’re important to neighbors in providing a sense of well-being and community, we know food is the first priority.”
The organization has also changed its hours to be open two days a week and has closed the client’s food pantry, she said.
Grove Christian Outreach has also increased the amount of times families can come to the center from once a month to once a week.
Patrick said that’s the organization’s way of remaining flexible and fluid to the ever-changing needs of the community.
Even before the impacts of the coronavirus occurred, more than half of the 1,400 homes in the Grove Community were either at or below the poverty line and living paycheck-to-paycheck, she said. Now, with many of those community members losing hours and jobs in the hospitality and service industry, their need to access food will continue to grow.
But the organization is struggling to keep up with the growing demand both in manpower and in actual product.
The organization’s neighbor-to-neighbor program, which “rescues” unsold food from grocery stores, has been drastically cut due to the lack of resources. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the organization was rescuing food from 13 stores.
Now it’s only rescuing food from two.
While Patrick said the organization is relying on its partnership with the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank to make up for the losses, she said she’s nervous for when the pantry runs out of supplies.
Karen Joyner, the foodbank’s CEO, said the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank was running low on donations even before the coronavirus struck but now, the donations have become almost non-existent.
Joyner said the foodbank relied heavily on donations from grocery stores but as customers in the region began buying items in bulk, there hasn’t been much product left for donation.
To fill the need, the foodbank has had to buy two truckloads of food which will be in next week and has also bought 28 pallets of food that will be delivered this week. Joyner said it isn’t ideal for the foodbank to have to buy so much food but it will have to if donations keep remaining so low.
“This is exactly why we have reserves to be able to manage in a disaster,” she said. “But we will have to replenish those reserves and our food inventory eventually.”
Joyner said the foodbank plans to go to a mass distribution service program that will feed large amounts of people in necessary areas, adding the organization has already discussed holding one mass distribution service in a Busch Gardens parking lot.
The organization is currently trying to maintain volunteer operations as much as possible.
Joyner said the tough decision on Monday was made not to offer volunteer opportunities inside the foodbank but rather limit volunteers to serving at the mobile food pantry. The organization is still taking volunteers to prepare for the anticipated number of new clients who might need the service.
In the meantime, the foodbank is still accepting donations. They can be taken to bins in the back of the building where they will be sanitized and distributed after 72-hours, in order to prevent spreading the virus on food containers.
“We are considered an essential, life-sustaining operation,” she said. “So if there is a shelter-in-place and people are closed down, we will still be here operating.”
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