More than 1,000 families turned out on Wednesday in the parking lots of two Rome schools to pick up food from the Connected Community Schools food pantry, program officials said.
“I can’t even put it into words, the food demand,” said Executive Director Melissa Roys, who worked in one of those parking lots.
One hour into the four-hour food pantry opening, one of the sites ran out of food and workers had to dash to the other to get more, organizers said. In total, the program gave away 12,000 pounds of food in four hours.
A lot of those who came out were people who have just been fired or laid off because of coronavirus-related closures and shut downs, Roys said.
“No one planned on this,” she said. “You plan a week or a month ahead and then when you get thrown something else financially; they just didn’t really have the resources to go when we all knew we had to run to the store quick.”
Across the area, staff at food pantries and soup kitchens say they’re braced for a wave of food insecurity as more families face life without a paycheck or a waiting period before they get their first unemployment checks.
“We are seeing the emergency food network being overwhelmed with people who are in need of food supplies,” said Lynn Hy, chief development officer for the Food Bank of Central New York, which serves a network of 282 food pantries, soup kitchens and emergency shelters in 11 counties.
People who’ve never had to rely on the emergency food network before have been laid off as businesses have been forced to close, she said.
“So somebody who was able to make ends meet last week has a very different outlook this week,” Hy said.
School districts have stepped up to make sure children who normally get free or reduced price breakfasts and lunches will get meals while they’re closed.
Some districts are having families pick up meals, while some are delivering meals. Some are using both methods. Some districts are providing extra food for the weekend on Fridays.
New York Mills has established pick-up sites in the community, including Hapanowicz Brothers Meat Market. And the Utica Academy of Science Charter School is offering meals to all children in Utica.
In the Vernon-Verona-Sherrill Central School District, staff packaged and delivered more than 200 meals on Tuesday, March 17, the first day of the program, and 330 meals the next morning, officials said.
Soup kitchens and food pantries
But kids aren’t the only ones who are hungry.
Demand is up both at the Rescue Mission of Utica’s food pantry and its soup kitchen, said Executive Director Wendy Goetz.
At its food pantry, the rescue mission is packing up food in boxes to hand out at its loading dock door, she said. And the soup kitchen has switched to takeout, handing out breakfast and dinner in containers on weekdays and all three meals on weekends, she said. Those containers, Goetz acknowledged, are considerably increasing the mission’s costs.
“We’re still serving the community, just in a different way,” she said.
But Goetz said she doesn’t think food pantries have seen the full impact of recent layoffs yet. As people start spending down their savings, the demand for food will go up, she predicted.
“It will probably get worse before it gets better,” she said.
Celia Bogan, operations director at Hope House, said her staff is braced for more people — especially in the interim while people wait to get their first unemployment checks. But she did say the immediate impact may be greater for food pantries.
“Most people will reach out to a food pantry before they come to a soup kitchen,” she said.
Hope House is handing out takeout lunches on weekdays, deliberately choosing the one meal the Rescue Mission isn’t serving, Bogan said.
Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen is also handing out takeout, hot meals on weekdays and bagged lunches on weekends, according to its website.
A group of homeless people Thursday walked by Hope House and saw that it will no longer serve people indoors, Bogan said.
“They were really upset to hear that we had gone to takeout only and they said no place is doing coffee,” she said. “How many people in America get up and get themselves a cup of coffee in the morning?”
But serving hot coffee, which requires lids, is difficult especially since it’s no longer safe to do a cream-and-sugar bar, Bogan said.
In normal times, Hope House remains open during the days, giving people who are homeless a warm place to hang out and socialize.
“That’s their social,” said Rita Stefanski, who runs the Thea Bowman House food pantry in the basement of Mother Marianne’s West Side Kitchen (which is also handing out takeout meals). “They come in and they socialize with other people. They get warm and they stay for an hour.”
And the people coming to food pantries aren’t just looking for food, Stefanski said.
“Everybody’s looking for toilet paper,” she said. “Everybody’s looking for hand soap and stuff like that.”
Donations of canned goods are helpful, too — if they come in easy-open cans, Stefanski said. Not everyone who comes to the pantry owns a can opener, she said. Donations of can openers, new or used, would be welcome, she said.
So far, her pantry hasn’t seen an increase in demand, she said. It tends to get busier later in the month as a supplement between other types of assistance residents are getting, Stefanski said. Food is being handed out in bags at the door, she said.
Hy expressed confidence that the food bank will be able to continue to supply area pantries and soup kitchens with enough food to keep the community well-fed.
“Right now, there is enough food. We are getting food, larger than normal quantities of food out to our partner agencies,” she said.
And staff are working every day to make sure that situation continues, she said. She asked anyone who wants to help for cash donations because the food bank can buy food cheaply and it’s easier to distribute bulk purchases than individual donations.
Some food pantries, though, say they are accepting donations of cash, food and toiletries (including toilet paper), although exactly what food they can accept varies from pantry to pantry, meaning it’s best to call ahead to ask about what’s needed and where and when to drop it off.
Connected Schools is one group that will accept even perishable food since it can use the refrigerators in the Rome schools, Roys said.
The second food pantry day on Friday at Gansevoort Elementary School brought another 250 families, most of whom seem to have come for the first time, Roys said. She estimated that they provided food for at least 1,000 people.
“And that is 100 percent thanks to our donations,” she said.
Many of the people they saw are restaurant staff, service workers, part time employees or substitute teachers who aren’t working any more, she said.
“The story has been,” she said, “I don’t have a job to return to after this over.”
Article by Amy Neff Roth