Volunteers (Courtesy of Thames Valley Council for Community Action, Inc.)

Food Pantries Seek Donations and Volunteers as Social Services adapt to Coronavirus

in Health

As the coronavirus spreads and the state sets stricter guidelines for social distancing, food pantries and other nonprofits around southeastern Connecticut have to find new ways of serving their populations while also meeting a sudden rise in needs.

Many of the area’s senior centers, nonprofit childcare centers, and other face-to-face services have been suspended amid the outbreak, but nonprofit leaders say too many people depend too critically on nutritional aid like Meals on Wheels or the Gemma E. Moran United Way / Labor Food Bank to stop those services.

“We have managed our Food Bank budget for a lot of years with a low budget and a lot of volunteers, and right now the most critical thing we can be doing is this food bank,” said Virginia Mason, president of the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut in a Tuesday phone interview.

The United Way’s Food Bank in New London provides food for about 76 other charitable or nonprofit food programs such as local pantries and child care centers. Last year the Food Bank and their distributors prepared over 2 million meals.

In the last few weeks, the Food Bank and smaller pantries have turned to extra gloves and cleaning, preordering and curbside pickup, and an emphasis on social distancing to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus through their work.

“We’re following all the CDC protocols,” said United Way vice president Dina Sears-Graves, who directly oversees the Food Bank, “that people wash their hands, wash surfaces, wear gloves, when gloves are compromised they throw them out and put on new gloves.”

Sears-Graves is also responsible for overseeing the distribution of United Way funds to about two dozen partner agencies around the region. Through that work, she said she’s been hearing about nonprofits struggling with rapid changes, a sudden drop in volunteers, and a spike in people losing work or hours from the economic downturn.

“You’re going to see the numbers [of people in need] rise,” Sears-Graves said. “I think the agencies are handling it now but I think what’s going to happen, give it about a month, this could be crippling for some of our agencies. This could set them back if they’re seeing a tremendous increase in needs meeting with the [funding] that they have now.”

Megan Brown, communications director for Thames Valley Council for Community Action (TVCCA), said in a Tuesday phone interview that her organization’s Meals on Wheels program has already seen a sudden rise in applications for meals.

“We’ve taken on an additional 200 clients with our meals on wheels. So we have about 750 clients across all of southeastern Connecticut, and we expect that to continue as people are out of work or unable to take care of their senior relatives.”

Brown continued that many of TVCCA’s programs — such as heating assistance — require clients to show proof of a certain income for four weeks.

“We expect to see an uptick in the coming weeks as people see reduced wages and may start to qualify for programs they didn’t before.”

To that effect, Brown added, “Monetary donations are really needed.”

What’s needed

Food pantries and Food Banks around the area are in particular need of nonperishables like peanut butter, pasta and pasta sauce, cereal, canned fruits and vegetables, rice, oatmeal, and baby food, according to several nonprofit leaders.

“Basically it’s always good to remember what you would want to eat and what you’re purchasing for yourself that is nonperishable,” said Amy Hollis, executive director of Shoreline Soup Kitchens and Pantries. “Those are what we want to provide for our guests.”

Hollis said that many traditional food drives have been rescheduled because of the coronavirus, making direct donations of food more critical.

Brown, from TVCCA, said similarly that fundraisers for nonprofits have been canceled or rescheduled because of the virus. She pointed particularly to TVCCA’s annual gala, which was postponed but typically brings in between $50,000 to $60,000 for the TVCCA’s programs, she said.

Mason and Sears-Graves said that other nonprofits around the area, specifically those that provide child care or other in person care, are seeking sanitary and medical supplies such as thermometers, hand sanitizer, and disposable gloves. Sears-Graves said the United Way is able to collect those supplies to share with partner agencies.

And among other needs, many of the area’s nonprofit food delivery programs are seeking volunteers. Mason noted that the extra procedures for cleaning and bagging groceries for curbside pickup take added time and effort over the Food Bank’s earlier work.

Stan Mingione, executive director of the nine-town Estuary Council of Seniors, said that most of his organization’s Meals on Wheels volunteers have typically been older people, who have been advised to stay home during the virus outbreak. 

“We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers,” Mingione said. “But a lot of our volunteers are in the high risk population. A lot are older, some are immunocompromised. So we’ve encouraged most of our volunteers to stay home, and we’re trying to fill the gaps with the staff that we have as well. But a lot of the staff is older as well so we’re down to a skeletal crew.” 

He said he was hoping to fill those gaps with newer volunteers where possible.

Mason, at the United Way, said similarly, “We could use a lot of volunteers if they’re willing to stick to the rules and help us keep everybody safe.”

Sears-Graves said that the United Way was preparing a webpage with a form for potential volunteers to allow them to begin the process online.

Sears-Graves and others said that the time of high need can be an extra motivator for staff and volunteers, but she cautioned that in the long term the added demand on nonprofits could strain their resources.

“They’re doing their best,” she said. “Because at the end of the day it’s a moral obligation to do this work. You’re in it to help people. I think at the end of the day everybody is doing everything they can to maintain the services while remaining safe.”

And she added, “I think we’re just in the beginning of this.”