WARSAW — It’s bittersweet.
If you run a food pantry, you take heart from helping others. But with the arrival of the COVID-19 outbreak locally in March 2020, the number of people seeking help increased dramatically.
Families. Retirees. People who suddenly found themselves jobless and struggling, amid statewide shutdowns and isolation orders.
One year later, the numbers have begun to recede slightly in some areas. And the pantries have had a chance to reflect on the experience.
“It is one of those bittersweet things where you don’t necessarily want to know this kind of ministry is being used in an increasing way … It’s one of those things we love to be able to provide for the community, but when usage is up, that means food insecurity is up,” said Pastor Katrina Macaluso of the United Church of Warsaw. “As a pastor that’s not something that makes you feel good. We love to be able to serve the community, but it hurts our heart to know that there’s need.”
The United Church of Warsaw has offered its long-running food pantry for about 30 years. It’s a well-stocked operation located downstairs, staffed by a large group of dedicated volunteers.
It saw a sudden jump in demand once the pandemic hit.
“Our numbers did increase,” said Cindy Kiel, the pantry’s director. “It was a little scary in the beginning, right when COVID hit and things shut down, because at that time, we had about 36 cans of vegetables on our shelves.
“We had other foods as well, but with canned vegetables, there was only about 36,” she continued. “And with the supply chain, we were limited to what we could purchase at the stores and what FoodLink made available for us.”
So the church and its pantry issued a plea through social media and other churches, detailing the emergency need — asking people to go into stores and buy two cans of vegetables to help restock the supply.
“It got us started again, to be able to have our shelves have more on them,” she said. “Foodlink was able to get some supplies too, and we were able to order from Foodlink.”
Food pantry use tends to fluctuate depending on what people need, Kiel said. The United Church of Warsaw has been serving about 400 people monthly since March 2020.
The church’s food pantry has also served 154 new families over the 12-month period from March to March.
The numbers actually decreased in February but demand still exists.
“The numbers have gone down, and I think there’s several variables,” Kiel said. “Foodlink and the Wyoming County Health Department worked well together to have mobile food pantries that were held once per week in Arcade, Perry, Warsaw and Attica.”
The expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has also helped in reducing demand, along with the federal stimulus check, and people returning to work as the economy reopens.
The situation was similarly pronounced at other food pantries throughout the GLOW region.
Faith Smith, volunteer director for the Community Kitchen at Christ Church in Albion, said its normal yearly give outs was around 8,000 to 9,000 meals, but for all of 2020 they did more than 19,000 meals and bags. Throughout the pandemic it served to-go meals from its parking lot, as well as offered bags of anything people needed.
“There were nights we would run out of food and people waited 40 minutes just for us to cook more food,” Smith said.
With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it was also a busy year for the Geneseo-Groveland Emergency Food Pantry.
“It was originally in the beginning hard when the supply chains were a little bit crazy,” said manager Deb MacLean.
From canned foods to household items, the need was there but getting those products out to the people who needed them, she said, was a bit difficult at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
“Between Foodlink and Wegmans — they were very helpful to us in as far as helping us acquire the things that we needed,” said MacLean.
Across the area, Foodlink was helping by conducting contactless food distributions giving out 25 pound boxes of food to people in need. At first, preregistration was required but then, as the pandemic continued, it evolved into a distribution given out on a first come, first served basis. With cars pulling up to different site, as volunteers stepped up to load the boxes of food in their trunks.
For MacLean and her staff, the pandemic also brought changes in how the food at the pantry was given out.
“It does not seem to have changed what people need,” she said. “When we’re open for the client choice model, that is where people can come in and pick what they want, they have more of a choice of non-food things like toilet products or laundry soap.”
With the pandemic, people weren’t able to do that, MacLean said. Instead, they had to drive up and pick up pre-packaged bags of food.
Staff at the Avon Food Pantry also had to change how the food was given out.
“Our pantry is a client choice and is set up like a supermarket,” said Director Jennifer Palmer. “With the pandemic, we had to change that and they had to call ahead to get prepackaged food. We would ask them over the phone what they wanted, while still giving them choices and then delivering that food to the client.”
It is something, staff say, has been working out OK, though they admit they miss how things once were.
“We are looking forward to reopening because there is nothing better than seeing the people come and pick up the food that they need according to their diet,” said Palmer.
In addition to delivering the food to clients, staff have also had community distributions outside and sometimes serve upwards of 300 families.
“We have had a lot of donations from the community,” said Palmer. “The local farmers have donated so much.”
Services have also been on the increase at the Geneseo-Groveland Food Pantry.
“We’re up 35 percent for the year for the number of households and 31 percent for the number of individuals,” MacLean said.
Community support has been key.
The United Church of Warsaw’s pantry prides itself on treating everybody with dignity and respect, Kiel said. During the crisis, it encountered people who remarked they typically donate to food pantries and never expected they’d need to use it themselves.
“That would be for various reasons too,” she said. “We saw an increase in the number of seniors coming to the food pantry. I think part of it was they may have had meals with their families and things and (now) their families were staying away from them.”
In other cases, parents lost jobs, or children suddenly lost access to school meals.
Demand for home deliveries also increased — Kiel and Macaluso both said they were fortunate the pantry was able to stay open throughout the crisis.
The pantry modified its operations to bring some items upstairs in order to maintain distancing and safety protocols, Kiel said. It also updated its order form daily, so people had some choice among healthy products.
The pantry also received support as word spread on social media, including from out of the area.
“We were so blessed with monetary and gift card and food donations,” Kiel said. “They were coming in almost daily. We’re so appreciative of that.”
And although the situation has improved somewhat, the need remains — like at the Community Kitchen at Christ Church.
“There is still a great need for the soup kitchen, but we’re not serving 400 meals a week,” Smith said. We’re down to about 150 meals a week. But we still do offer the extra items if anyone comes or needs anything.”
She said the Community Kitchen isn’t funded by anyone nor are they part of Foodlink or any other organizations, although they do get a United Way food grant once a year. Other than that, they rely on donations from the community.
Smith said if it wasn’t for the community support, they would have never been able to stay open.
So the food pantries and their volunteers continue to provide in ongoing pandemic era.
“We’re a team and we’re just very proud to help those who are in need,” Kiel said.
(Includes reporting by Brendan McDonough, Matt Surtel and Mallory Diefenbach.)