More Mainers are heading to food pantries and soup kitchens as nonessential businesses are required to close their doors and workers are furloughed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The spike in demand for help from these groups comes just as the surge in demand for food at grocery stores cuts off one major source of donations and recommendations that people keep their space from each other mean that organizations can no longer serve meals on their premises and fewer volunteers are available. Some food pantries have even closed their doors because of a lack of volunteers.
Kristen Miale, president of the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which distributes staples and fresh produce to 400 locations throughout the state — including food pantries, meal sites, schools and senior centers — said the organization’s partner sites are already seeing more families seeking food.
“In a survey last week, 44 percent of the locations that partner with us reported that on average 10 additional families had come to them to get food than the previous week,” Miale said Wednesday.
About 70 percent of the food Good Shepherd distributes comes from retailers such as Hannaford and Shaw’s supermarkets. But because their inventories are down significantly, the organization has had to purchase food that normally would be donated.
“We’ve ordered and paid for 10 truckloads of food staples that we hope will get us through the next two to three weeks,” she said. “We have received a lot of cash donations to help us through this time. We are holding our breath to see if the response is enough and how long this isolation will last.”
The Salvation Army on South Park Street in Bangor, which operates the Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen, has seen an increase in the number of people coming for a meal over the noon hour. Before the coronavirus outbreak, volunteers from church groups in Greater Bangor prepared a hot meal and served it inside the building near Broadway Park.
Now, Salvation Army staff are making bagged lunches and handing them out in the parking lot. Usually open from lunch Monday through Friday with a breakfast on Sunday, the organization now is handing out bagged lunches seven days a week, according to Capt. Rebecca Kirk.
“Our previous average was 75 to 100 per meal service, and we saw 132 on Monday,” she said. “Tuesday, a snow day, we served 110 and that is a high number for a snow day. We imagine this number will increase as we go longer into community closings.”
Kirk also is concerned about money since the organization’s main source of income comes from its thrift stores in Bangor and Brewer, which have had to close.
“We are working to reach out to the community to receive additional support during this time while our stores are closed,” she said.
Many of the houses of worship that usually send volunteers are donating money and food instead, Kirk said.
In Maine’s largest city, the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen on Congress Street has seen less of a demand, according to Jesse Senore, the soup kitchen’s president. It usually serves between 140 and 160 people a day at its sit-down meal and distributes an additional 75 bagged lunches. Since switching to only bagged lunches last week, between 65 and 95 people have come to the soup kitchen.
The soup kitchen has donated food it would have used for hot meals to the Harrison Food Bank in Washington County, which was running low on food due to a loss of donations from grocery stores, Senore said.
The Sacred Heart/St. Dominic Food Pantry on Portland’s Sherman Street hasn’t seen an increase in demand, either, said Stephanie Moore, business coordinator for the Portland Peninsula and Island Parishes. But the organization expects that is coming, she said.
“As more nonessential businesses shut down, we expect to see more people in need, especially those who work in restaurants,” Moore said.
But some food pantries are closing at just the time more people are likely to need their help. The reason is a lack of volunteers, many of whom typically are elderly or otherwise at a high risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.
So far, 27 of the Good Shepherd Food Bank’s distribution partners have closed due to a lack of volunteers, Miale said. The food pantries and soup kitchens that have remained open have changed how people access them to comply with social distancing requirements.
The River Church on Center Street in Bangor has had a food pantry for about 15 years. Every Wednesday morning, the church usually opens its doors and people come in “to shop,” said Pastor Steve Sinclair. Under normal circumstances, the food, delivered that morning by Good Shepherd, is divided up on five tables, one for each food group. People are provided a bag and, depending on the size of their families, are allowed to select one or two items from each table.
For the past two weeks, people have not been allowed inside the building so that social distancing guidelines can be followed. Volunteers, donning gloves and masks, have packed the food into boxes and taken them outside to the people waiting.
That should change next week, since workers at L.L. Bean will box food before Good Shepherd distributes it to its partner sites. People still will have to wait outside to pick up a box.
The Salvation Army and smaller churches with food pantries that are closed have asked that people make an appointment to pick up food. Volunteers, many of whom are networking online, are making deliveries to shut-ins and those who do not drive.
Miale believes that with the help of Maine people and businesses, Good Shepherd can continue working toward its long-term mission to break the cycle of poverty and food insecurity.
“Nobody should be going without food,” she said.