Hunger on the frontlines.

St Thomas Food Pantry curbside distribution_drive thru distribution.

Spread across our 29 county and five city service area, the members of our Agency Network are on the frontlines of fighting hunger. These food pantries, churches, soup kitchens and other nonprofits are committed to serving their community and we’ve been inspired by their resilience, flexibility and dedication during these unprecedented times.

One such agency is the St. Thomas Food Pantry, a more than 20-year outreach mission of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Richmond. Liz Pearce, who manages the food pantry, recently shared how their food distributions have shifted in the last few months.

While so much has changed around us in the past eight weeks, one thing has remained unchanged – the weekly distribution of groceries from the St. Thomas’ Food Pantry, a twenty-plus-year outreach mission of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Thanks to the leadership of the rector, Herbert Jones, pantry manager Liz Pearce,  and a core group of devoted volunteers, the pantry has continued to remain open and true to its mission of providing neighbors in need with nutritious food, positive social interactions and educational information focusing on healthy lifestyles. We’ve changed our distribution format from a client choice “mini-grocery” to handing out pre-packed bags, and are following social distancing guidelines.

The week of March 16, weekly attendance doubled, then later tripled, due to several area food pantries closing down, schools closing and the loss of jobs. Prior to COVID19, typical weekly attendance hovered around 75 households (impacting ~300 people weekly), with 15 to 20 “new” households each week. On May 14, attendance climbed to 252 households (impacting ~1,000 people), with 78 new households added that day.

Our partnerships in the community, and with Feed More in particular, have been critical. We are designated as an Emergency Relief Agency, which means we are given additional allocations of USDA inventory and receive weekly deliveries of 12,000 pounds of food.  We continue to pick up donated inventory from Food Lion, smaller local markets, bread companies and have received grocery donations from neighbors. We have received hand crafted masks for our volunteers and guests, and financial donations from church members and community supporters. Most recently, the St. Thomas’ Food Pantry received a grant from Food Lion and was a designated charity for an area wide YMCA food drive. Anthem Healthkeepers donated cloth grocery bags, and Virginia Public Media provided us with educational flyers for our families.

The financial implications have changed our operations, as we have had to purchase thousands of grocery bags, additional cleaning supplies, gloves, sanitation tools and so forth. The tables, carts and hand trucks we own are getting used in different ways, and since we are retro-fitting equipment, we will need to buy new equipment soon. For example, we are using folding tables to pre-pack bags that are groaning and straining under the weight of the items on the table. If we are to continue our distributions in this manner, we will likely need commercial tables and additional heavy duty carts.

Our guests are grateful that we have remained open, but the environment has shifted a bit, understandably. Newcomers are timid, hesitant and somber. Many people who have never visited a food pantry before mumble and apologize for being there, and eye contact is limited. Guests who may have only visited a handful of times in 2019 have picked up groceries 5 out of the last 8 weeks. In efforts to remain safe and healthy, we are forced to stay apart, and we all miss visiting with our guests, catching up on family news, sharing a cup of coffee and hearing about new jobs. The style of car that a family arrives in has shifted as well, from older model cars, to newer sedans and minivans.

The transition of our food pantry from a “pop-up” style market to a distribution center has not been easy, but we have met our goals each week and have not run out of food. With the nonstop support of Feed More, donations from our community and a steadfast roster of volunteers, we anticipate continued success. In the words of one of our guests, “We can count on St. Thomas to be here. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

We are grateful to have St. Thomas’ and all of our other agencies standing beside in these unprecedented time and are inspired by their commitment to look after those who are food insecure. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.