hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues June 2020


Filling a need for food

Pandemic tests limits of region’s charitable networks


Cars line up to receive an emergency food packages May 26 at the Columbia County Fairgrounds. Regional food banks and local charitable organizations have organized a series of similar events around the region as unemployment has spiked upward amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Scott Langley photo


Cars line up to receive an emergency food packages May 26 at the Columbia County Fairgrounds. Regional food banks and local charitable organizations have organized a series of similar events around the region as unemployment has spiked upward amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Scott Langley photo


Contributing writer


Inside the local food pantry in Greenwich, N.Y., Donna was picking up groceries for her son and his family.

Her son was still working despite the coronavirus shutdowns, but her daughter-in-law was staying home with the children while school is suspended.

“I need to fill in with what they can’t get in the store,” Donna said. “I just thank God for the pantry here. It would be a hardship without it.”

Another shopper, Denise, said she had come to the Comfort Food Community pantry for the past two weeks to stock up on vegetables and chicken

“My husband’s hours were cut back due to Covid,” she explained.
She and her husband like to eat salads, but produce in the supermarket is expensive, she added.
The two women didn’t want their last names published, but both said the food pantry fills a vital need.

“I’m not sure what we’d do” without it, Denise said. “Usually the Lord provides. I come when we need extra help.”

Over the past two months, massive unemployment brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the region’s charitable food system to its limits.

From February to April, the jobless rate spiked from 3.7 percent to 14.5 in New York, from 2.8 percent to 15.1 percent in Massachusetts, and from 2.4 percent to 15.6 percent in Vermont.
Many of the lost jobs were in food service, accommodations and retail – all generally low-wage sectors. Hundreds of area health care workers also were laid off as hospitals postponed elective procedures.

“The job losses and recession are hitting people really hard,” said Nicole Whalen, spokeswoman for the Vermont Foodbank. “Some people were struggling before, and now they’re in a much deeper struggle. Others never needed help before, but they’re struggling now.”

A recent study by the University of Vermont estimates that food insecurity in the state has increased by 33 percent since the pandemic started. Requests for food assistance have shot up by 800 percent at some of the food bank’s local partners, Whalen said.

“Our network is not set up to feed this percentage of the population,” she said. “In normal times, we’re already at capacity.”

Restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus, changes in supply chains, and the sheer size of the need has forced pantries and food banks to change the way they operate.

Many pantries are run by churches and staffed by a few volunteers, often elderly. A handful of those sites have closed because of concerns about the health of volunteers and the inability to maintain safe distances in small spaces, said Lillian Baulding, a spokeswoman for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. The regional food bank serves the Berkshires and three counties in the Pioneer Valley.

Other pantries have moved distributions outdoors. Before the pandemic, the best practice for many pantries was to allow guests to browse the shelves so they could choose the food they wanted. Now most pantries have staff and volunteers pack food ahead of time and bring bags or boxes out to guests in their cars. Some relief organizations have dropped residency requirements or limits on how often people can get food.

Forced to change or curtail their operations, some community food pantries are actually serving fewer people amid the pandemic. But regional food banks in New York and Vermont have responded to the need by organizing mass-distribution events at central locations like county fairgrounds, where volunteers deliver packaged foods directly to car trunks of hundreds of people.


Rapidly changing plans
In New York’s Washington County, Comfort Food Community shifted its operations in a “phased approach” as the pandemic worsened, said Devin Bulger, the group’s executive director. The pantry, which serves people in the Greenwich Central School District, went from normal operations to enhanced sanitizing to “metered shopping” (allowing only a few guests in at a time) to parking lot distribution of pre-packed boxes.

Now that the area is in the first phase of reopening, “we went back to metered shopping,” Bulger said. “We’ll probably stick with it for the foreseeable future, at least through next month.”
Demand “has been a little uneven,” Bulger said. “There was an initial bump, but demand has evened off or is even a bit lower.”

That could be because the staff-packed boxes contained more food than people would usually take on their own, and people haven’t finished them yet, he said.

Others who might have come to the pantry instead went to a mass distribution held May 7 at the Washington County Fairgrounds. The event, organized by the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York and local partners, drew 397 vehicles and served nearly 1,800 people.
And, Bulger said, “unemployment benefits and some of the stimulus efforts are doing what they’re supposed to do” -- giving people money to buy groceries.

Comfort Food, which has regular weekly hours and is more active than many community food pantries, receives most of its non-perishable food from the regional food bank. That includes U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities, the stock of which has increased during the pandemic as the USDA buys up food that normally would go to restaurants and institutions.

Donations from supermarkets are “a little stressed,” but “we can manage a pretty normal stock,” Bulger said.


Community support
Like most pantries, the Comfort Food Community relies on fund-raisers and donations to help keep its doors open. It had to cancel its annual fund-raising campaign, Give Hunger the Boot, because people couldn’t get together. Instead, the community did an online fund-raiser, Kick Covid, that brought in $25,000. Supporters created individual fund-raising pages through the food pantry’s website to ask their friends for donations.
“It was a way people cooped up at home could lean in to that and support the cause,” Bulger said.
The Comfort Food Community met its initial goal of $15,000 through an anonymous donor’s dollar-for-dollar match, then went for the higher amount.

“The average donation was $127,” Bulger said. “It was broad-based and grassroots.”
The pantry received a $77,000 grant from Nourish New York, a $25 million state emergency fund to enable food pantries to buy and distribute New York agricultural products. The funds have to be disbursed within six months.

“We need a high-volume way to spend the money, and we want to keep it close to home,” Bulger said. The hope is to partner with Greenwich Central School to feed students while school is out for the summer, he said.


Volunteers at a food distribution event load boxes and bags into cars that formed a long line last month at the Columbia County Fairgrounds. Photo by Scott Langley


Volunteers at a food distribution event load boxes and bags into cars that formed a long line last month at the Columbia County Fairgrounds. Photo by Scott Langley

Columbia Opportunities Inc., based in Hudson, provides a number of services for low-income residents of Columbia County. When the pandemic struck, the community action agency had to close some services, such as Head Start and tax filing assistance, but loosened its requirement for food aid to include “anyone in need,” said Tina Sharpe, the group’s executive director.
Columbia Opportunities is collaborating with other organizations to ensure that people who need food can get it – for example, by partnering with a volunteer group, Doorstep Deliveries, to deliver pantry food to people’s homes.

“The demand at the food pantry is very low right now,” Sharpe said. “It’s a little perplexing.”
It’s helped that schools are continuing to provide breakfast and lunch to students, she said.
“Poverty and hunger have been present in the community for many years,” Sharpe said. “The pandemic has only highlighted the economic disparities in our communities. Some people live with a concern about where their next meal will come from every day. Their needs won’t be addressed by the programs we have today.”

Sharp increase in demand
For Mark Quant, executive director of the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, March 16 was the day everything changed.

“We’ve had a 50 to 60 percent increase” in orders from member pantries, he said.
The regional food bank, based in Latham, serves 23 counties in eastern New York, from Putnam County to the Canadian border. The pandemic’s impact has varied across the area, he said, depending on local needs and how well communities are responding.
“Some are doing a good job of meeting the need,” he said.

The regional food bank has added staff and a warehouse to handle the demand.
“Fortunately, we entered this time with a very strong inventory,” Quant said. Federal supplies are coming through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, and the bank has been able to buy New York food products through Nourish New York, a new state program to redirect surplus agricultural products from New York farmers.

“It’s really good food coming in,” Quant said.
The bank has organized special food distributions around its service area, including the one at the Washington County Fairgrounds and another on May 26 at the Columbia County Fairgrounds. Between 300 and 750 vehicles have shown up at each event, with one topping 1,000, Quant said. Many people waited in line for hours.

Public schools in New York have been ordered to continue to provide school meals through the summer, Quant said. That will help make up for community summer programs that fed kids lunch and snacks and sometimes sent food home. Those programs, which depended on children congregating, have been suspended, he said.

“The most essential thing people need is food,” Quant said. “The bank provides food every day and responds to disasters. Usually disasters are local. This is everywhere. Nobody saw this coming.”

He predicted that demand will ease somewhat as the economy begins to recover.
“But it will take people a while to build back up what they’ve lost,” Quant said. “As long as people need food, we’ll be here doing the best we can.”

Reaching out in Rutland
The Rutland Community Cupboard is a donation-based food shelf that, until recently, only served people living in the Rutland area.

“We’re now serving anyone who needs food,” said Rebekah Stephens, the group’s executive director.

There are no quantity limits, but “we ask that you take only what you need,” she said.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott shut down the state in late March as the pandemic spread.
“In the first week or so, there was panic,” Sharpe said. “That’s settled down. We’ve seen a ton of new faces -- people out of work, kids out of school, definitely a lot more families. We’re helping a minimum of 50 families a day.”

At first the pantry closed its indoor store and had volunteers give out pre-packed bags of food. But the pantry had a garage full of shelving, and Sharpe and her husband moved the contents of the store to the garage, where guests could pick out their own food and still keep safe distances.
“That’s been working really well,” Sharpe said. “It reduces clients’ stress and gives them some sense of control.”

The Vermont Foodbank “has made a commitment to keep the food supply steady,” Sharpe said.
A grant from the Vermont Foodbank enabled the pantry to buy organic produce from Radical Roots Farm in Rutland.

“To be able to give that to people is just awesome,” Sharpe said.
Local processor Thomas Dairy is supplying fresh dairy products.
“They’ve been so good to us,” Sharpe said.

The Vermont National Guard organized a mass distribution of food recently at the local airport and donated leftover MREs (meals ready to eat).

“We have them in stock,” Sharpe said. “People like them. Some have lasagna in them.”
Depending on guidance from state and federal authorities, Sharpe said she plans to reopen the pantry’s indoor store on June 15. About half of the volunteers will return, “with all kinds of safety measures.

“We’ll serve as quickly, efficiently and safely as possible,” she said.


Scrambling to adjust
Whalen, of the Vermont Foodbank, said the charitable food system is facing a “perfect storm” brought on by the combination of greatly increased need, limits on availability of volunteers, and more labor-intensive food distribution methods such as pre-packed boxes.

“We gave out 83 percent more food last month with the same infrastructure,” she said. “The size of our warehouse and the number of our trucks hasn’t changed.”

The Vermont Foodbank and several state public and private organizations collaborated to join the federal Farm to Families Program, which provides boxes of state-grown food to families in need.

“We’re giving out 1,000 boxes of fresh food daily through the end of June,” Whalen said. “It’s high quality food, locally produced.”

At the same time that some area families are struggling to obtain food, some dairy farmers in the region have been dumping milk they can’t sell. Dairy processors are struggling to adjust to rapid shifts in demand brought on by coronavirus-related school and restaurant closings.
So the Vermont Community Foundation donated $60,000 to the food bank to buy Vermont milk and pay local processors to turn it into bottled milk and yogurt.

The Vermont Foodbank, the state Emergency Operations Center and the Vermont National Guard have organized several mass distributions of food around the state. One, at the state airport in Berlin, drew an estimated 1,900 cars in a line that stretched for five miles. Some people had to be turned away when the food ran out.

“What we’re facing now is unprecedented,” Whalen said. “The level of need is completely unfathomable. Government has to do a better job of stepping up and making sure people in our communities are fed.”
The Vermont Foodbank and other anti-hunger groups are advocating for more state funding and improvements to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, she said.
“SNAP provides nine meals to every one meal from the food bank,” Whalen said. “What we’re doing is not sustainable and not meeting the demand.”

When checks run out
In the Berkshires, the Salvation Army provides food assistance, free meals and other services at community centers in Pittsfield and North Adams. Food requests at the Pittsfield center “have tripled per week,” said Capt. Elliott Higgins, who runs the center with his wife, Capt. Darlene Higgins.

“We’re seeing all kinds of new faces showing up -- individuals, families, seniors -- from all walks of life,” Elliott Higgins said.

The Salvation Army has a long history of working with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Administration and the American Red Cross in disasters, Higgins said.
“We’re prepared for this,” he said. “But we have the ability to reach out to more people.”
The Salvation Army’s Pittsfield center has adopted Covid-19 prevention protocols, including masks, gloves, sanitizing, and holding nonperishable foods for several days, Higgins said.
The center is delivering 350 food boxes a week to organizations in the southern Berkshires that distribute them to seniors, students and other people in need. Each box has enough essentials like cereal, canned food, rice and pasta to feed a family of four for five days, he said. The center is also delivering food to a shelter for homeless people who have tested positive for the virus.
The Salvation Army relies on longtime volunteers who have been trained and passed background checks.

“We rotate them in and out,” Higgins said. “Usually it’s a two-week deployment. This is every day.”

Stimulus checks “will only take you so far,” Higgins said. “Eventually it runs out. I don’t see it getting much better until people can get back to work, and that’s not going to happen any time soon.”

Requests for food assistance from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts were up 6 percent from its Berkshire County partners in March compared with the same month in 2019, said Christina Maxwell, director of programs for the bank.

State and federal food aid “is coming in as normal,” Maxwell said in an email. The bank is starting to receive some food from the Farm to Families program and expects pre-packed food from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

Supermarket donations “have dropped off substantially, but they’re starting to return,” Maxwell said. “We’re purchasing much more than we normally do.”

The food bank hasn’t done any mass distributions in the Berkshires. Existing programs, including the bank’s Mobile Food Bank serving North Adams, Adams, Dalton and Great Barrington, seem to be meeting the need, Maxwell said.

“Hopefully, the summer feeding program [for school-aged children] will be able to operate,” she said. “Otherwise, we expect to see more families coming to pantries, meal sites, and the mobile food banks.”

As restrictions are lifted, some people should be able to return to work and won’t need food assistance, Maxwell said.

“But many people are very uncomfortable about returning to work at this point,” she said.
And many people in low-wage jobs need food assistance even in normal times because they don’t earn enough to support themselves and their families.

“They face something of a chronic emergency,” Maxwell said.
Maxwell said Covid-19 is spotlighting weaknesses in the broader economic system and social safety net.

“As a country, we need to seriously examine many of the systems and structures that we see as normal,” she said. “Many of these systems do not work for low-income individuals and other marginalized communities in the best of times, never mind during a pandemic. We need to stop talking about poor people as if they are criminals, we need to pay people a living wage, we need to provide health care benefits and child care assistance, and we need the federal government to supply adequate nutrition benefits so people can access the food they need to stay healthy.”