The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York has experienced a 40 percent increase in the volume of food it’s shipping out to agencies in the past month.
The Food Bank’s large warehouse in Latham has long served 23 upstate New York counties, but the last two weeks of March saw organizations requesting larger shipments of food.
“We’ve been responding to every request we receive, and we’ll continue to do that, that’s what we’re here for,” said Mark Quandt, executive director of the Regional Food. “We’ve been busy, that’s for sure.”
The soup kitchens and pantries that order from the Food Bank report seeing new faces as the virus disrupts New York’s economy.
“We’re finding that we’re not just talking to our regular customers, we are talking to those who are recently unemployed who are not used to navigating the systems,” said Jo Anne Hume, executive director of the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council. “I’ve had people call and just say, ‘I don’t know what to do. How do I get my rent paid, I’m just lost.’ They’re frightened and they’re anxious, and really sometimes just to talk to somebody that says, ‘We’re here to help you,’ is helpful.”
Saratoga EOC, which delivers food around the county and packs school lunches, has nearly tripled its workload. Last week, Hume said they’ve gone through 29,000 pounds of food in the last three weeks.
The way that agencies serve the hungry has had to shift in response to the virus’ impact.
Renee Wendover has been serving cafeteria-style meals at the Joyce Center soup kitchen in Albany for five years, but they’ve recently had to start packing meals into to-go bags for clients.
“At first we started to limit the amount of people that could be inside, but due to the domino effect of everything, now it’s all takeout,” said Wendover, program coordinator at the Joyce Center. “At the door we get to greet them, so we still have some contact, but I miss that social hour especially with our elderly clients.”
Wendover said they’ve seen a small uptick in the number of meals given out in recent weeks, and even more of an increase at the Joyce Center’s food pantry. To compound matters, many of the volunteers they previously had are staying home because of the virus. “We had close to 45 volunteers, and now we’re down to maybe five,” said Wendover. “Unloading the truck is hard; we used to have the kids from LaSalle school come down and help out, but their school is now closed.”
Staffing is an issue for other local non-profits also.
At the Schenectady City Mission, they’ve stopped allowing volunteers altogether over health concerns. That’s a huge drop: last year the Mission benefited from 38,000 hours of volunteer service to run the shelter, community meals, and several other programs according to Executive Director Mike Saccocio.
“The good news is our residents have stepped up. The people who live here are filling those gaps.” said Soccocio. “As much as we miss our volunteers, it’s encouraging to watch the folks we serve step up to serve others in a hard time.”
Other organizations are turning to food delivery to help those in need. Saratoga EOC said they have been able to enlist new volunteers to pack the food and deliver it to around 600 doorsteps across Saratoga County. “We can’t say enough wonderful things about the folks at Saratoga County who have stepped up to offer funding to us,” said Hume. “It just keeps coming in online and in checks. We’re so grateful for that; the generosity of folks is wonderful.”
Meanwhile, an unorthodox community organization is showing they can still provide groceries and food without any top-down leadership or grant support.
Albany Food Not Bombs is a collection of volunteers that previously served hot meals every first Monday of the month out of the Social Justice Center on Central Avenue. They’re now taking extra food from grocery stores and packing it into bags every Monday for around 30 to 50 people.
“We have a lot of volunteers coming out of the blue, donating us money or supplies,” said Nick Cook. “The impressive thing about Food Not Bombs is it’s entirely community-run and supported, so it’s been really inspiring to see people so motivated to take a part in such a community-level organization.”