For The Family Pantry, The Surge Is Here

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Hunger , COVID-19

Only volunteers are allowed inside the pantry, and they are temperature-screened before each shift and wear personal protective gear.  COURTESY PHOTO

NORTH HARWICH — Thankfully, Cape Cod has yet to experience a surge of COVID-19 patients in area hospitals. But from the perspective of the Family Pantry of Cape Cod, the surge in clients is already here.

The nonprofit recently reported a 97 percent increase in new client visits this April compared to the previous April. The numbers show what’s already clear from the line of vehicles outside the Pantry: more people need help putting food on the table because of the shutdown.

“Most of it is coming through new clients,” Family Pantry Executive Director Christine Menard said. “It was just kind of crazy. We knew it was coming.” Some clients are people who’ve been laid off or furloughed, and others are people who would normally be starting seasonal jobs, but the businesses haven’t opened.

“They hold on until April, and then April didn’t happen,” she said. “A lot of these people have never set foot near a pantry.”

Interestingly, some of the Family Pantry’s repeat visitors haven’t been part of the surge.

“There’s a whole bunch of existing clients who are not coming,” Menard said. Volunteers called around 40 of those people to check up on them, “and virtually every one of them said, ‘I’m just afraid,’” she said.

In response to that fear, all food distribution is done by curbside delivery, with clients remaining outdoors at all times. The result is adequate social distancing and shorter wait times for clients.

“It’s actually faster,” Menard said. Clients arrive and take a number, and are given a shopping list to complete. They hand in the form, which volunteers then use to assemble bags of groceries that are brought out to the vehicle.

“We even make a copy of the grocery order that they’ve given, so we’re not touching papers that other people have given us,” she said. While volunteers miss the face-to-face interaction with clients, the process moves more quickly than it used to, Menard said.

In all respects, the Family Pantry’s operation is running smoothly. The food supply chain is good; the Greater Boston Food Bank has doubled its operations, and is now having food shipped directly to the Family Pantry from the suppliers, which eliminates a bottleneck in the process, she said. The variety of food offerings is slightly smaller than in the past, but the change hasn’t prompted any complaints. A basic selection of meat is available now, and Family Pantry clients can choose from around 20 different varieties of vegetables rather than the usual 35.

There’s no shortage of volunteers, either. Staff and volunteers have been working extra hard and have adapted well to the new operation. And concerns about safety aren’t keeping volunteers away, she said.

“We have a pool of about 70 on a waiting list,” Menard said. “They’ve actually said they feel safer here than other places,” since volunteers wear masks and gloves and are constantly cleaning and sanitizing; they also have their temperatures taken at the start of each shift.

Financially, “we’re holding up,” Menard said. Hundreds of people donated to the campaign to expand the Healthy Meals in Motion mobile pantry. The organization is now able to buy two gently used trucks, in addition to funding the associated food needs. The Pantry will be able to retire an aging vehicle and expand the Mobile operation, thanks to individuals and foundations which donated $215,000, and an anonymous group of North Chatham summer residents who offered a $125,000 matching grant.

The Pantry operates the food vans in Dennis, Chatham, Brewster, Eastham, and Provincetown, and hopes to expand to include Orleans soon. To meet the increased demand, the mobile pantry now delivers clients’ groceries to distribution sites like senior centers. Local volunteers then deliver the food to seniors.

It’s not clear how long the Family Pantry will need to operate under its pandemic protocols, but it’s ready to continue doing so indefinitely.

“I think we’ve pretty much got it down to a science now,” Menard said. “And we can do this all day, every day, until we don’t need to do this anymore.”