BENNINGTON — Food pantries in town have transitioned to prepackaged pickups at the same time that they're expecting demand to surge from a coronavirus-induced economic slowdown.
His Pantry, of Sacred Heart Saint Francis de Sales parish, began distributing pre-boxed nonperishable food items to people at the pantry door on Wednesday rather than allowing them to shop inside.
Coolers containing perishable items such as fresh produce and deli meats, on the other hand, were placed outside in tents for the first time. People could take what they needed yet still maintain distance to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, which as of Thursday afternoon rose to 22 cases in Vermont — more than double the Tuesday tally.
His Pantry also saw a notable increase in shoppers Wednesday: 45 families came when 30 usually stop by this time of the month, said the pantry's volunteer director, Joni Charbonneau.
She attributes the bigger turnout to both the job losses from recent business closures, as well as the decimation of grocery store supplies.
"Right now, we're lucky enough that we have toilet paper to be able to distribute to each family," Charbonneau said. The pantry is giving only one roll of toilet paper per family — until supplies last. His Pantry is open for sign-ups 1-3:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 10-11:30 a.m. Fridays.
When asked if she's worried that the pantry would soon run out of supplies to meet demand, Charbonneau said: "We're very much in fear of that."
Since the coronavirus outbreak, BROC Community Action of Southwestern Vermont has seen new faces at its food shelves.
They are people who have recently lost jobs, and ones who previously didn't qualify for these benefits, said Maryann St. John, BROC's county supervisor for community services.
On Friday, as the calls for "social distancing" mounted, BROC began prepackaging its food shelf items and handing them out at the door. Five days later, on Wednesday, the nonprofit organization suspended the program because it didn't have enough people to distribute the packages. Like many workplaces in the country, some of its staff have started working remotely.
St. John is hoping the other food pantries in the area can fill the gap until it reopens. In the mean time, other BROC programs like fuel and housing assistance continue to run.
The Kitchen Cupboard at the Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services — southern Vermont's largest food distribution location — will remain open as usual: 5:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and 10 a.m.-noon Thursdays and Saturdays. Starting Thursday, however, it began offering pre-bagged groceries left on a table outside its building at 121 Depot St.
The shift from shopping inside the building "challenges our vision of radical hospitality," Executive Director Scott Winslow said in an email, "but we hope this lowers our risk so we can stay well enough to continue providing services."
Expected rise in demand
Vermont Foodbank, which partners with some 300 food programs throughout the state, is anticipating a spike in demand for food assistance due to the economic losses from the coronavirus outbreak.
Besides making access to food harder for those who are already struggling with hunger, Foodbank spokeswoman Nicole Whalen said it would also push over the edge "people who hadn't previously needed to reach out for help but were just barely making ends meet."
The Foodbank has no data yet on any recent increase in demand for food assistance. But already it is ordering three months' worth of supplies for the 12,000 people enrolled in its own food programs. The organization serves an additional 153,000 people statewide through partner food programs, such as His Pantry.
"We have been hard at work making sure that our shelves are stocked, and that we have as much extra food on hand as possible to help our partners meet the need," Whalen said on Wednesday.
Call for volunteers
Meanwhile, the Hunger Council of Bennington County is working on matching volunteers with food pantries that need help.
Bennington County Meals on Wheels, for instance, has seen a drop-off in volunteer meal deliverers, according to notes from a recent Council conference call provided by co-chairwoman Megan Herrington. If volunteers continue to decline, there's apparently been a request for the Vermont National Guard to assist.
His Pantry is looking for "young, strong and healthy" people who can help with chores like setting up tents, bringing out tables and restocking coolers at its biweekly food distributions. The pantry's roster of regular volunteers is comprised of seniors, who are among the groups found to be most vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Contact Tiffany Tan at firstname.lastname@example.org, @tiffgtan on Twitter or 802-447-7567 ext. 122.