Food pantry clients continue pick-up despite COVID-19

Tue, 07/14/2020 - 1:45pm

    Boothbay Region Food Pantry expected the COVID-19 pandemic to create a large increase in weekly clientele. But despite over 98,000 Mainers losing their jobs and the state unemployment rate soaring from 3.6 to 10.6 percent in April according to the Maine Department of Labor, the pantry didn’t see a spike in new clients. Instead, the nearly two dozen clients who visited the pantry once every four weeks remained fairly steady.

    But the pandemic resulted in at least one major change. The pantry began distributing food outside, which created more work for seven of 23 regular volunteers who set up the pantry each Friday. Also, clients are showing up a little earlier. Food distribution usually begins in Boothbay Harbor Congregational Church’s parking lot around 11:30 a.m. on Fridays, but clients are showing up as early as 9:30 a.m.

    Each week, seven volunteers (five outside and two inside) begin to fill orders in the parking lot. Patrons provide a shopping list which is photographed and transmitted to volunteers inside the pantry. Executive Director Fleet Davies explained this is one of the safety precautions along with social distancing to prevent human contact. Volunteers fill orders in about 8-10 minutes. The two outside volunteers help select bread and produce.

    This has been the routine for four weeks. The new safety standards require more work and preparation by volunteers, and Davies expects more patrons to show up in August and September. He expects food requests to increase by one and a half or twice what it is now. He believes the federal stimulus funds delayed any COVID-19 related financial impact, but those funds have been spent or expired. “This could bring our numbers to 40-60 families every week, and I’m not sure we are going to have enough food for everybody.”

    But there is enough food now. Davies credits strong community support for both financial and food donations keeping food supplies strong. In March, Rising Tide in Damariscotta began providing 50 prepared meals each week. The meal feeds two people and a family of four receives two boxes. Hannaford also supplies pastries and produce not bought. And donations to buy other foods continue. “We’ve had strong community support throughout the pandemic. The schools, police and firemen have supported our efforts, and we  have so many requests for additional volunteers, but we can’t find a place for them,” Davies said.

    Food donations are so strong, perishable items like bread and produce are given away to other local non-profit groups. Traditionally, Boothbay Region YMCA, local schools, Food 4 Thought and the Community Center have received surplus supplies. The Y is now open, but schools and the Community Center are still closed. So pantry officials are considering a second distribution for produce. “We’re thinking about a 45-minute session to give out produce on Sundays,” Davies said. “We’re looking at sending out an email blast and Facebook post to announce this.”

    But there are some products in short supply. “There are some orders hard to fill because there is a lack of coffee, sugar and flour,” said BRFP Vice President Greg Barter. “COVID has made finding those products harder to find, and it’s been difficult for clients who can’t go inside and pick out what they want like they used to.”

    Davies estimated the pantry has 230 families as regular clients. The pantry restricts visits to once every four weeks. Send any donations to Boothbay Region Food Pantry, P.O. Box 63, East Boothbay, ME 04544.