St. Francis Food Pantry had a problem.
Like many nonprofit organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Eau Claire pantry in March found itself losing volunteers while still trying to fill a critical need in the community.
Recognizing that hunger is not something that was going to go away during a health and economic crisis, pantry officials responded by completely changing the frequency and method they deliver groceries to the roughly 500 families served by the agency.
The organization went from a weekly format in which clients “shop” for their own groceries at the pantry to a system that involves clients picking up a large to-go order once a month.
“The problem is there were so many bodies coming through our building, both clients and volunteers, so we had to alter our approach,” said pantry treasurer Sue Ellen Kowieski, referring to recommendations about social distancing and gathering sizes.
Part of that shift happened naturally when the pantry’s roster of 50 to 75 regular volunteers, 90% of whom are over 70 and thus in a high-risk category for potential complications from COVID-19, started opting out. Understandably, all of those individuals have stopped volunteering for the time being, said Kristie Matthaei, executive director.
“It used to be kind of like going to a grocery store where clients could select the items they want, but that has all changed,” Matthaei said.
Beginning last month, a skeleton crew of about 15 volunteers and a handful of staff members are taking turns keeping the pantry stocked and loading carts for the new monthly distributions.
In April, 320 families collected 270 pounds of food apiece, meaning the pantry distributed a total of 86,400 pounds of food in three days, Matthaei said.
“They were kind of shocked, in a good way, at the amount of food they were getting,” she said.
The revamped distribution method limits face-to-face contact by having volunteers outfitted with masks and gloves push carts piled high with groceries to the pantry’s parking lot and then collecting clients’ names and addresses. Clients are asked to load the items into their own vehicles and deposit the carts near the building.
Volunteers and staff then sanitize the carts and load them back up with groceries for the next family.
To avoid long lines, the pantry crew in April loaded a bunch of carts ahead of time “so we were pretty much ready at 9 a.m. to start pushing food out the door,” Matthaei said.
“It’s an essential business, and I’m really glad we’ve been able to keep doing it in some fashion,” Kowieski said. “We are still serving those in need the best we can.”
A lack of access during the pandemic to donated produce nearing expiration from local grocery stores has resulted in a shift to a greater percentage of nonperishable food, Kowieski said.
“It’s a lot of canned fruits and vegetables, but that’s just going to have to do for now,” she said.
Still, each family received about 60 pounds of frozen meat, as the supply chain has not been an issue yet for the pantry, Matthaei said. The major suppliers for St. Francis, the largest food pantry in western Wisconsin, are Eau Claire-based Feed My People Food Bank and The Emergency Food Assistance Program operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Matthaei credited community donations for helping the pantry get by this spring after two its major sources of support — annual food drives by the U.S. Postal Service and the Boy Scouts — were canceled because of concerns about the coronavirus.
Despite the sudden lack of personal choice and the relative inconvenience of collecting a month’s worth of food at a time, Matthaei said families served by St. Francis were appreciative of the groceries as well as the pantry’s initiative in finding a way to maintain the supply of food through a difficult time with unprecedented restrictions on contact among people.
“Considering all of the changes, it was very well-received. We didn’t have anybody trying to return things, which we feared,” Matthaei said, noting that families were encouraged to give items they didn’t want to other people who would use them.”
The next distributions are set for May 18, 20 and 22, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday and from 9 a.m. to noon on Friday.
So far, demand hasn’t changed much from the normal level despite the surge in layoffs, furloughs and temporary pay cuts in the Chippewa Valley and nationwide.
Matthaei speculated that could be the result of federal stimulus payments and increases in other food aid programs and that demand could rise sharply when those extra benefits expire.
In the meantime, she said, pantry officials already have begun planning how to “slowly start getting back to a new normal once things start opening up.”