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Food pantries respond to changing needs

After one month of life under Governor Tony Ever’s “Safer at Home” order and with at least another month yet to go, area food pantries have been expecting a sharp increase in the amount of people needing food. For the most part, the expected surge hasn’t happened yet, but they are doing everything they can to not only ensure help for people who need food, but also keep everyone safe when they provide it.

The Clark County Food Pantry and Resource Center is one of the area food pantries that has yet to experience a large increase in people coming in for help. Assisting about 120 families in a given month, volunteer Judy Morrow said even though they have been expecting more people, their numbers have stayed pretty much the same.

“We’re basically kind of waiting for it to hit,” she said. “It’s amazing, we’re all waiting for it to hit, but what’s happening is that it’s not happening. We’re feeding different people, but there’s been no real influx.”

Both the Spencer and Loyal food pantries have also said they have yet to experience an increase in people asking for help.

“We’re still open,” said Joyce Abegglen of the Spencer Food Pantry. “So far there’s been no increase on people coming in, that’s about the same. We thought the numbers would increase, but they haven’t.”

One big reason why the food pantries haven’t seen more of a need in the past several weeks, the volunteers said, is because of the schools. Ever since schools were closed in late March, each district has been providing its students with free meals almost every day of the week. This has helped, as it has provided families extra food to cover the additional meals parents would have to otherwise provide for, during a time when they may be out of a job.

“Schools have been having lunches for the kids, that’s been holding people pretty much together,” said Morrow. “If these kids didn’t get lunches, it would be worse.”

Bethany Verkilen agrees. She runs the Granton Food Pantry, which has started to see an increase in people asking for food. Regularly, she said the pantry helps about 24 to 30 families, a number that has doubled in recent weeks. It would be far worse, she said, if the schools didn’t provide help.

“Oh, yeah, it has helped,” she said. “We have been teaming up with the school, they’re delivering breakfast and lunches, and have been helping deliver boxes for families in need from the pantry. I think it definitely helps with the impact, with the school supplying lunch and breakfast. It would make their need greater if they didn’t have that.”

A similar trend was reported by Janette Schultz of the Greenwood Food Pantry. Normally, she said the pantry could expect 35 to 40 families each time they were open, but now, there are more.

“During the last month and a half, we’ve had 27 new families,” she said. “Normally we’re seeing around 35 or 40 families each time.”

The increase in demand at the Greenwood and Granton food pantries have already started to show their effects. While there has been no shortage of food, Schultz said they have started to increase the amount of food they purchase from Feed My People of Eau Claire, which has increased their costs.

“We have been getting our food from Feed My People in Eau Claire,” she said. “Normally we would spend $500 each time we were open on food, now it’s $1,500.”

On top of the increase in costs, with most people staying at home and only going out to get necessities, there has also been a downward shift in the amount of food donations pantries have received. In Granton, where the pantry is run almost exclusively on these kinds of donations, it’s been even harder to keep up with demand.

“Donations have dropped significantly,” said Verkilen. “There’s a lot going out. The need has raised significantly. We are funded entirely through donations, actual food items. A few people and organizations have sent monetary donations though, that’s nice.”

Fortunately for most of the area’s food pantries, people and organizations have been generous with monetary donations. In Spencer, Abegglen said the “Safer at Home order hasn’t been stopping the local Boy Scout troop from conducting their annual food drive, a drive they have slightly modified in order to comply with guidelines.

“One thing that we’re thankful about is that the community is very giving,” said Abegglen. “The Spencer Boy Scouts, they normally do a run where they hang bags on doors and pick up donations the next week. Now they are telling people to call in and make monetary donations instead. We have had a lot of cash donations in a few weeks.”

“Fortunately we have had quite a bit of donations come in, monetary donations,” added Schultz. “We also had Grassland donate two cases of butter. We also get food from Kwik Trip … We’ve had some really good donations come in, but we’ll always accept more.”

Besides food and donations, there are other ways local food pantries have been impacted by recent events. Every pantry has had to establish its own rules on how to hand out food to those in need, most choosing to pre-box items and deliver to people in their vehicles instead of letting them enter the building.

“First of all, the volunteers we had were all elderly,” said Morrow. “They’re not volunteering anymore, but we want them to come back when this is over. We have had some younger people come and help, high school volunteers take out the food to people in their cars. We’re trying to keep contact down as much as we can.”

“We only allow a certain amount of people in at a time,” added Abegglen. “People are not allowed in the food pantry itself. We have been giving them a list of what we have in the food pantry and they choose what they want.”

What exactly people will be receiving in a given week may be different than what some may be used to. For the past few weeks, pantry volunteers said they have noticed sometimes significant differences in their food supplies as their sources struggle with problems in the supply chain.

“There are some things I’m not seeing,” said Schultz. “Green beans is one of the items, it just disappeared. There are some other items that have been disappearing, but some are always there. There have been weekly telephone conferences with suppliers, and they have been telling us how they’re handling it. We’re very very happy with (what they are doing to help), we would be really hurting if we could not get food from them.”

“We deal with Davel’s Grocery store in Stratford,” said Abegglen. “They couldn’t get us chicken a few weeks ago, a week before that it was toilet paper. It all depends, the things you can’t get, you try to deal without.”

With the “Safer at Home” order as of now to continue until May 26, the volunteers said they expect they haven’t seen the worst of the its effects yet. Knowing that it’s only so long before money begins to run out for people, they said they are working hard to make sure they can keep up with any future demand.

“I’m expecting more, up to 60 families,” said Schultz. “But I think we’re going to be OK. We’re going to do what we can do, substitute in alternatives for things to get people food. It may not be what they’re used to, but it’s food, and we hope people will be able to work with it. All we can do is overshoot what we will need.”

Though there is a lot of uncertainty — and worry for families and individuals struggling financially — the volunteers said those in need should not be afraid or ashamed to ask for help.

“We don’t turn anyone away if there’s a need,” said Schultz.

“If there’s a need, don’t be afraid to ask for help,” added Verkilen. “There’s no shame in asking for help.”