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Food pantries close while need expands and donated supermarket food becomes scarce because of hoarding

“This domino effect is nothing like we’ve seen before,” said Stefanie Arck-Baynes, communications director at Philabundance.

The sign in front of the Feast of Justice food pantry at St. John's Lutheran Church in Mayfair offers encouragement as people await food. The pantry  has changed the way it distributes food, offering pre-filled bags rather than allowing clients to enter the pantry.
The sign in front of the Feast of Justice food pantry at St. John's Lutheran Church in Mayfair offers encouragement as people await food. The pantry has changed the way it distributes food, offering pre-filled bags rather than allowing clients to enter the pantry.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Many food pantries supplied by the hunger-relief agency Philabundance are facing dual crises: Growing unemployment is causing need to spike, and at the same time, supplies are dwindling because panic buying in supermarkets has left the stores with little food to donate.

Adding to the difficulties, the corps of mostly senior citizens who help run pantries has been decimated, not by the coronavirus but the fear of it, resulting in at least 70 of 350 pantries supplied by Philabundance shutterering.

On top of that, Philabundance on Thursday morning closed its two main buildings in South and North Philadelphia for deep cleaning over three days after executives discovered that an employee had been in contact with a person who tested positive for the coronavirus. A second employee, they also learned, lives with a person who has a fever but whose COVID-19 status has not yet been determined. It’s not clear what effect the closures will have.

The unprecedented combination of soaring demand, locked pantries, and decreasing food reserves is stressing an already-taxed system that feeds the hungry in the Delaware Valley. Prior to the coronavirus, Philabundance said it supplied food for about 90,000 people a week.

It’s ironic, some hunger fighters noted, that residents of poverty-plagued neighborhoods that can’t attract supermarkets are being harmed by hoarders from better-off areas who are denuding shelves of items typically left over and donated to those of meager means.

» READ MORE: As grocery deliveries surge due to the coronavirus, the most vulnerable have to wait

“This domino effect is nothing like we’ve seen before,” said Stefanie Arck-Baynes, communications director at Philabundance. “We’re also losing our older volunteer drivers that deliver food. And part of what’s frightening is we haven’t hit the worst of the emergency yet.”

Normally, Philabundance distributes 26 million pounds of food in a year, 10 million of which are donated by supermarkets like Acme.

“Any products still good to eat but not bought in our stores are given to Philabundance,” said Dana Ward, communications manager for Acme Markets, whose corporate headquarters is in Malvern. "But there’s a much smaller amount of donations we can give now because people are buying us out of house and home.

“At this point, we don’t know when we’ll be back in a position to donate food.”

Complicating matters, Philabundance has turned away donated food from the public out of concern that the products could be contaminated by COVID-19, Arck-Baynes said. The agency is still accepting monetary donations, she added.

Rare good news

In some rare good news, George Matysik, executive director of Share Food Program, the Hunting Park food distribution site that gives out more than 30 million pounds of food a year to 500 regional pantries, said he believes his agency can sustain and perhaps surpass its normal giving.

“Our main source of food comes from federal government commodities,” Matysik said. “We get only 2% to 3% of our food from supermarkets.”

Share feeds 700,000 people a month, he said, including 305,000 students eating school lunches, which Share distributes.

» READ MORE: Free Philly school meals will now be offered at district, charter, PHA sites only, with limited hours

Matysik added that, like Philabundance, Share has lost some pantries. To mitigate that, Matysik has teamed with new partners that never served as pantry sites before: Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition (SEAMAAC) in South Philadelphia, which helps immigrants, and Crest Auto Store in Overbrook, working with Overbrook West Neighbors.

“I think we’ll withstand increased need without question,” Matysik said.

That’s vital assurance given the difficulties some pantries are facing.

“I can’t open my pantry or distribute food because it’s not safe for me as an older cancer patient,” said Thelma Kennerly, 68, who normally runs a meal service and pantry at Devereux United Methodist Church in North Philadelphia. "But that means my people can’t get their food. Folks are bum-rushing the supermarkets, which aren’t donating to the other pantries my people could go to.

“April will be a scary time. That’s when the scarcity will hit."

» READ MORE: How to help, or get help, in Philly during coronavirus

It’s little-known that most of the pantries in this area "are run by people my age and up,” said Derek Felton, 69, in charge of Fresh Start pantry in West Philadelphia.

Pantries were never meant to serve as day-to-day food suppliers when they were begun in the 1970s. Yet, what started as a stopgap effort to help strapped families has morphed into an informal but crucial system that literally keeps the Philadelphia area alive.

And now that structure is endangered as churches also close their pantries because of the coronavirus.

“I really don’t know what people will do for food,” said Lorraine Beaton, 86, who runs the now-shut Harambe Baptist pantry in Germantown. “Our pastor closed our church, and it’s a time when the community really needs us.”

Another concern is that coronavirus warnings are scaring the elderly out of shopping for food, said Tanya Sen, community nutrition program manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. “We have to figure this out quickly before people start panicking.”

Around 20% of Philadelphia’s 300,000 residents ages 60 and older are at risk for hunger, according to Allen Glicksman, director of research and evaluation for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

‘Outrageously dedicated seniors’

Problems are accruing even at the larger pantries in the area that are remaining open but are losing precious senior volunteers.

“Our pantry is run by outrageously dedicated seniors, and I’m concerned for their health," said Patrick Walsh, pantry manager at Martha’s Choice Marketplace in Norristown, run by Catholic Social Services. “We ask the vulnerable to wait this out at home.”

» READ MORE: As the coronavirus spreads, staving off hunger is a challenge in Kensington, Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhood

The trouble is, he added, clients now losing their jobs are “coming in here at double and triple the normal rate.”

Usually, the pantry is frequented by 1,000 families in a month. But, Walsh said, “we saw 700 just last week. And with supermarkets selling out, we’re really getting hit.”

The story is much the same at Feast of Justice in Mayfair, one of the city’s largest pantries, accustomed to serving 5,500 clients a year at its site in St. John’s Lutheran Church. Like many other pantries, Feast of Justice has changed the way it gives out food, offering premade bags rather than allowing clients to congregate inside.

“I’m trying to figure out which pantries are still operating alongside us here in Northeast Philadelphia, and it’s amazing to see how many aren’t,” said Pastor Tricia Neale, who runs Feast of Justice. “Chaos is increasing. I wake up some days and ask, ‘Really, can we still do this?’”

» READ MORE: Restless and eager to help, residents in the Philadelphia region are joining volunteer groups aiding coronavirus response

Neale’s staff of 50 senior volunteers is down to 25. At the same time, she has to continue to push out 10,000 pounds of food a week — more, now that unemployment threatens to reach all-time highs.

“There’s been a notable uptick in the number of families coming,” said Neale, 47, a married mother of three and a former biomedical engineer who gave up a high-paying job at the Mayo Clinic to feed those in poverty.

Now she’s feeling overwhelmed. “I pray this virus does not take me down,” she said. "But I’m holding up poorly. I’m exhausted.

"Food from our grocery partners through Philabundance is really drying up. But families keep knocking at the door. I have to have a level of trust that God’s got this.”

Buying beef

Not awaiting divine intervention, Ken Ross, who runs the Honey Brook food pantry in Chester County, was at a nearby BJ’s Wholesale Club buying ground beef and bread on Wednesday to feed his clients.

“Grocers who normally give to us canceled a bunch of our orders,” Ross said, citing over-shopping by others. "The food supply chain is totally disrupted.”

A month ago, he received 65 boxes of free food from a grocer he declined to name. The other day, he got three.

“Hoarding,” Ross said. “There’s nothing left. So I have to take people’s donations and buy the food. But earlier this month, we had to cancel our fund-raiser.”

Hunger fighters see this as only the beginning of troubles, said Suzan Neiger Gould, executive director of Manna on Main Street, a social-service agency in Lansdale, Montgomery County, that runs a food pantry.

“I have seen the reductions in supermarket donations, I am starting to see the increases in need as people’s last paychecks come in,” she said. "We are being asked to do things we are not prepared to do.

“If this continues for months, it will be beyond us.”

Staff writer Samantha Melamed contributed to this article.