by MaryBeth Eiler
Adapting to highly unusual circumstances, food pantries are demonstrating resilience as they find new ways to serve the community. While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many food assistance programs to close, two Midtown pantries haven’t been deterred from stepping up to the challenge.
Typically housed in close operational quarters, St. Vincent de Paul Boulevard Place Food Pantry, 4202 Boulevard Pl., and Mid-North Food Pantry, 3333 N. Meridian St., have adjusted their standard operating procedures to comply with the ever-evolving guidelines presented by the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Indiana State Board of Health to create a safe space for volunteers and those they serve.
“We temporarily suspended operations to clean and reorganize the pantry to create more work space and develop a model that is more safety conscious for volunteers and shoppers,” said Cindy Brown, director of the Boulevard Place Food Pantry. “We’ve reworked our space inside, moved shelves around, and transferred inventory to create more space.” She said the pantry plans to reopen April 22.
Both Boulevard Place and Mid-North typically function more like grocery stores. During the public health emergency, Boulevard Place is operating as a drive-up facility and Mid-North is establishing a walk-up facility in its parking lot. Many items are pre-selected and bagged to limit hand-to-hand contact. Staff are making every effort to continue offering shoppers choice when it comes to meat and produce.
“We’ve been hard at work developing methods of handing out food with minimal risk to volunteers and shoppers in the format of a drive-up pantry,” Brown said. “In the new process, volunteers must pre-select instead of allowing shoppers to self-select, but it still gets food out to people.”
An additional challenge is that access to the pantries has been moved outdoors. Mid-North has created a walk-up pantry in its rear parking lot to serve clients. “We are no longer in the building and are now fully operating outdoors using a modified client-choice approach,” said Susan McMahon, lead volunteer at Mid-North Food Pantry. “We still want people to choose what they can.”
Working outdoors includes weather issues volunteers have never had to face before. “We’ve had to make adjustments,” McMahon said. “People can’t shop like it’s a regular pantry, so we prepare bags in advance with the same kinds of items people are used to.” She said many pantries have had to switch to offering pre-boxed assortments where everyone receives the same items. “We are grateful we can do a little more because we are serving individuals who walk up to a set of tables and are given their food,” she said.
A key benefit of the adjusted pantry models has been an increased capacity to serve shoppers. “Boulevard Place is looking to take on more than normal with the drive-up model,” Brown said. “We are a USDA food pantry and there are certain rules we typically follow. A lot of that has been laid aside so that we can serve anyone who drives up. Right now, we are aiming to serve as many as 300 families a week, which is more than our normal volume.”
McMahon reports that Mid-North usually assists around 150 to 200 new families in a month. More than 600 new families came in March. “The need is there and we can serve more, particularly in the second half of our shifts,” she said. McMahon recommends arriving halfway through open hours rather than getting in line early, when the wait is longer. “We have no shortage of food,” she added.
Food pantries are taking extra precautions to protect everyone involved. Both Boulevard Place and Mid-North have reduced the number of volunteers required during shifts to ensure compliance with social distancing recommendations and to keep the pool of volunteers that fall within the at-risk category safely at home. “Staying safe ourselves, keeping our volunteers safe, and keeping our clients safe is our greatest challenge during this time,” McMahon said. Volunteers remain essential to the ongoing operation and she’s noticed a shift in the volunteer mix. “Our typical volunteer base is over the age of 70 with underlying health conditions. These days we are frequently seeing a parent-child combination,” McMahon said. Healthy volunteers from the community are welcome.
The community continues to band together in creative ways to ensure people’s needs are met. Food pantries are collaborating and sharing what has worked and ways to adjust when needed. “I’ve talked to several landlords about how they might help their tenants get food,” McMahon said. Additionally, Mid-North is looking to set up a way for people to help shop for older residents. “We don’t have specifics yet, but once it is all ironed out, we will be looking for people to help drive and drop off,” she said.
Cindy Brown said that networking among food pantries is more important than ever before. “There is a lot of helpful communication around what’s working and how it’s going. We can update what doesn’t work to methods that do right away,” she said. Sue McMahon adds, “Each shift we come up with new procedures that make us all a little bit safer and allow us to serve people the food they want.”
MaryBeth Eiler lives and writes in Midtown. https://marybetheiler.com/
Photographer Garrett Dickerson lives in Mapleton Fall Creek.