LANCASTER — Food is one of the most important resources for everyday life, and sometimes the struggle to find enough for your family or yourself is something that can be overlooked. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, that struggle continues to be pronounced.
According to the Fairfield County Hunger Coalition, the programs designed to help people get the food they need were working as intended, with fewer referrals to area food pantries in 2021.
While some food pantries and some food distribution programs reported helping fewer clients through 2021, some still had the same volume of food distributed. Others saw demographics of clients shift, helping more households without children in them, than those with them.
According to the notes from the Jan. 5 meeting of the Hunger Coalition, 2-1-1 reported a 25% decrease in calls and referrals in 2021 compared to 2020. There was a 50% decrease in food referrals, but mental health referrals remained about the same.
Fairfield County 2-1-1 Executive Director Jeannette Curtis said she is proud of the food banks and pantries in Fairfield County, and how they worked to remain open and available to continue to help people since the beginning of the pandemic.
“At the start of the shutdown, a lot of food pantries outside of our county closed their doors, but in Fairfield County, they came together and worked out how to figure out how to continue to serve those in need while staying safe,” Curtis said. “They changed their models, no one closed.”
“We expected a surge of referrals or requests once COVID-19 hit, but we’ve had the opposite because of food and income assistance programs, which just means they’re working properly.”
She added that programs like free school lunches, benefits for families with children and unemployment payments are helping the families who need it. She said the stigma is that these people are gaming the system, but the decrease in food pantry referrals shows that when the money’s available, clients are using it to pay bills and buy food, as intended.
“The child tax program, the school lunch programs and extended SNAP and EBT benefits have proven very beneficial. The way the food pantries stepped up allowed us to focus on other requests, like utility and rent assistance, and connecting clients with transit options,” Curtis said. “Because food requests dropped, we could better examine the root causes of some clients’ issues, to help see trends.”
Demand stays steady for local food pantries
During the pandemic, several food pantries were forced to reconsider their distribution model to comply with requirements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, finding ways to limit exposure and still provide food for clients as conveniently as possible.
Before the pandemic, both the Lancaster-Fairfield Community Action Agency and Lutheran Social Services food pantries allowed clients to pick the food they wanted, making a trip to the pantry similar to a grocery store. However, as COVID-19 cases rose, pre-packaged boxes of food became the norm.
“The shopping model is one way to allow clients to have a choice of the food they’re picking, because they know their eating preferences and will know how to cook it, but we definitely couldn’t have all those clients back here, the risk of exposure was too great,” Misty Decker, the LSS Distribution Center Manager in Lancaster, said. “The shopping model keeps it feeling like an experience in a grocery store, and it adds a little dignity.”
“But we’ve been able to work with clients, with enough time before they come in, to try and include products they’ll enjoy and use in the pre-packed box. They’ve understood the need for change, so we haven’t had too many complaints.”
Decker said they serve between 500 and 600 families a month. In addition, the food pantry is able to provide around 450 extra meals for Thanksgiving.
LFCAA Executive Director Clint Davis and Food Pantry Coordinator Tammy Townsend said a similar change was made for their pantry, as exposure was a major concern.
“They get one of everything, we fill up a shopping cart, and the clients can take the food out to their car. If they need assistance loading it, a volunteer goes along. We’re still delivering the same, if not slightly more, volume of food as pre-pandemic numbers, even if we have slightly fewer clients than before,” Davis said.
They explained clients used to have access to the pantry during visits to the agencies, so they could make use of each visit without having to make extra trips. Now, visits to the pantry are set by appointment. Volunteers fill the carts before clients arrive.
“And it might take more time on our side, getting things set up ahead of time, but it’s fairly convenient for clients. We’ve definitely seen a change of demographics, more households without children, and we usually see more requests for food come in towards the end of the month, as some benefits are getting thing by then,” Townsend said.
Townsend added they served around 2,200 families between July and December. They typically have between 14 and 22 clients a day.
Burbridge Cook, the executive director of Connexion West on Garfield Avenue in Lancaster, said the pantry programs located in the center went through transitions as well.
“In one of the biggest projects here, we had about 20 organizations come together to help take care of children when the pandemic began. They packed boxes and distributed them to the families of Lancaster City School students that needed them, over the course of summer 2020,” Cook said. “Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve worked to create a network connecting smaller pantries throughout the county, so we can share whenever we’re overstocked.”
“Ironically, without COVID-19, that probably wouldn’t have ever happened.”
Cook said they typically serve about 30 families when the pantry is open on the weekends, which is about half of their pre-pandemic service, but he said he sees them climbing.
“We’ve still got organizations active and providing food, like the PB and Joy program, packing and delivering meals to the families of Gorsuch West Elementary elementary that need it,” he said.
Alissa Clark, a realtor with Rise Realty, Co., said while demand has been down in recent months, there is still a need for the program.
“We pack easy-to-prepare meals for families, things like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, canned pasta, soup and cereal, just things that don’t take a lot of time to put together. We were serving about 300 meals a month, but this year we’ve typically done about 140 or so. It’s less than last year, for sure, but we’ve kind of seen it climbing again,” Clark said. “We pack the bags at Connexion West, then take them over to the elementary, and getting to see the kids, and see how much they appreciate the food, that’s what makes the program special.”
Barrett Lawlis is a reporter with the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette. You can share story ideas or comments with him at 740-681-4342 or send an e-mail to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @BarrettLawlis