Drive-thru food pantries stepping up effort to meet high demand during pandemic

Cars line up in Crosstown Plaza for a drive-thru food pantry hosted by the Schenectady Foundation on Thursday.
Cars line up in Crosstown Plaza for a drive-thru food pantry hosted by the Schenectady Foundation on Thursday.

SCHENECTADY — Terri Marshall was ready Thursday for her first day back at work as a nurse after spending the last five-plus months at home because of COVID-19.

But before Marshall — considered at high risk for COVID — went back to her job helping people, she also got a helping hand: She walked through the rain to the Schenectady Foundation’s drive-thru food pantry at Crosstown Plaza — her first time participating in what’s become a common sight across the Capital Region as thousands feel the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m used to a paycheck every week, not every month,” Marshall said. “This is very valuable.”

Marshall was one of a handful of walk-ups Thursday morning. Most of the hundreds of others were in their cars, the line snaking through the Crosstown Plaza parking lot and back onto Watt Street.

Cars lined up at 7:30 a.m., with a well-oiled team of volunteers starting an hour later to load up cars with boxes of produce, dairy and meat provided by the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. The line was eventually cut off due to expected high demand and a desire not to turn anyone away once they’d reached the front of the line, only to find out the food had run out. It’s a problem that Schenectady Foundation has run into at previous drive-thru pantries it organized this summer, said Kristi Miller, the foundation’s director of grants and community programs.

In less than an hour every car in line had been served, with the couple dozen leftover boxes set to be donated to other area food pantries.

For Miller, it’s satisfying to see her organization’s ability to help so many in need, but also difficult to come to grips with the reality of how many people are in need of assistance to feed their families.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Miller said. “Sometimes, I look at these lines and it just brings me to tears, because I can’t believe there’s so many people in need that they’ll sit in this line and wait. It’s sad. But, this is such a good feeling that all these people involved can say, ‘Somebody is literally going to eat dinner tonight because of the work I did this morning.’”

There’s plenty of demand, and the supply’s been there to meet it.

According to statistics from the state Department of Labor, the unemployment rate hit 11.4 percent in July, the highest mark since spiking to 12.9 percent at the start of the pandemic. Prior to that spike, the region’s unemployment rate hadn’t been higher than 5 percent since February 2018.

As that number has surged, food pantries have risen to meet the demand.

In a typical year, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York would hold around 350 mass food distribution events. This year, more than 400 such events have already been held, and Executive Director Mark Quandt said the food bank has already distributed more than 50 million pounds of food since mid-March.

“We knew in mid-March that things were going to be different, that the need was going to go up when businesses started to shut down,” Quandt said. “We just started gearing things up. Fortunately, we had a good inventory of product at that time, so we got off to a good start.”

One of the regional food bank’s biggest partners, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, reached a pair of unprecedented landmarks during a drive-thru food pantry last Friday in Albany, surpassing 1 million pounds of food distributed and 50,000 people served through the CC MOVE mobile outreach initiative.

In contrast, over the first 13 months of CC MOVE’s existence, from November 2018 through December 2019, the initiative served 5,366 people, according to Sister Betsy Van Deusen, Catholic Charities’ community partnership director.

“I spent some time doing disaster work, and one of the perspectives [I take on it] is that this is a disaster that everyone is living through,” Van Deusen said. “We think about disasters as ‘over there’ . . . but right now many, many people are living in this disaster zone — without a quick answer about when this is going to end.”

With such a sustained high demand, there’s naturally worry about whether the supply can keep up, but both Miller and Van Deuesen said the Regional Food Bank has been extremely accommodating in providing food throughout the pandemic.

For Thursday’s event, the Schenectady Foundation received 300 boxes of produce, 300 boxes of dairy, 720 bags of fish sticks and nearly 300 boxes of chicken and cheese from the Regional Food Bank.

Quandt said the Nourish New York initiative started in May, as well as the organization’s partnership with Feeding America, have been vital to providing the food bank with a constant source of food.

“Our supply has stayed strong, and we’re in good shape right now. We try to stay on top of it,” Quandt said. “Right now, things are good in terms of the supply, and we believe it will stay that way. We’ll face some challenges, I would say, potentially at the end of October or beginning of November — that’s when the Nourish New York program ends — but they may extend it. That’s been a tremendous source of food for us.”

“They [the food bank] are in touch with food connections all over the country,” Van Deusen said. “Their sense is that as long as food is available and it’s needed, they would continue to provide it.”

While the Schenectady Foundation was holding its drive-thru pantry Thursday morning — its fourth in the past two months — Catholic Charities was holding a similar event in Albany. Meanwhile, the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation announced an additional $1 million in emergency hunger relief grants on top of the $1.25 million donated in March.

It’s that spirit of community and kindness that inspired people like Aaliyah Westford of Schenectady. Two weeks ago, she was a customer at the Schenectady Foundation’s drive-thru pantry at ViaPort Rotterdam. Thursday, she braved the early morning rain to join a couple dozen other volunteers loading cars with food.

“I’ve been coming to a few of these for a while with my mom and my grandmother,” Westford said. “Every time I do, I ask about being a volunteer.

“People helped me. I want to give back.”

Reach Adam Shinder at [email protected] or @Adam_Shinder on Twitter.  

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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