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Amid coronavirus outbreak, food pantry services are 'more critical now than ever before’

A worker at the Greater Boston Food Bank.
A worker at the Greater Boston Food Bank.Suzanne Kreiter

Among the hundreds of clients served by the Weymouth Food Pantry ­­is a mother who works three jobs to support her family. Since the coronavirus crisis reached the Boston area, she has been sent home from two of those jobs.

With her wages cut, the woman was unable to stock up on groceries because they’d been cleared out by hoarders.

“She was beside herself about how she will feed her family,” said Pam Denholm, the food pantry’s executive director. “Just remember that there are neighbors in your community where this has a major, major impact, beyond a full cupboard and time to watch a Netflix movie.”

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As the crisis surrounding the coronavirus pandemic hits some of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable residents, the region’s food pantries expect greater demand for their services while quickly adapting operations to help protect their clients and volunteers from the disease.

The Greater Boston Food Bank, which works with roughly 500 food pantries, meals programs, shelters, and soup kitchens across the region, has been stepping up efforts to ensure food supplies reach clients in the midst of the outbreak, said Catherine Drennan, the organization’s spokeswoman.

But for a lot of clients, particularly workers who are impacted as businesses cut hours short, the outbreak will be keenly felt.

“We have enough food -- we just need to get it out to the people who need it," Drennan said. “We know that lots of people are losing their jobs, they are not getting their paycheck they rely on... we are definitely anticipating an increase in demand.”

The existing distribution network between organizations remains in place, she said, while many pantry groups are expanding their hours to meet growing demand for services.

“As much as possible, we are trying to keep our programs operating as any other day,” Drennan said.

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Due to a slew of questions about food bank programs, the Greater Boston Food Bank is releasing its most up-to-date information to the state’s 211 phone service and via Project Bread’s food resource hotline, 1-800-645-8333, she said.

Right now, the best way to help food banks is to donate money, officials said, which can be done through the organizations’ websites.

In recent days, efforts to combat the virus’s spread in Massachusetts have included calls for people to stay home, not gather in public places, and practice social distancing. On Sunday, Governor Charlie Baker ordered all schools closed for three weeks, and for restaurants to cut hours and offer only take-out service as of Tuesday.

Experts said those steps are critical if there is hope to avoid a spike in coronavirus cases, which would overwhelm the state’s health care system.

But they also directly impact the working poor, said Denholm of the Weymouth Food Pantry -- cutting back their hours and slashing their pay just when they need help the most.

The Weymouth organization operates its own warehouse and has three distribution locations in the city, where it serves between 1,200 to 1,500 families, Denholm said. It also delivers food to some clients.

Denholm said cash donations are far more helpful right now -- the Weymouth pantry can buy $7 worth of food for every dollar donated.

“We are a community, and we are in this together,” Denholm said. “And by the looks of things, we are going to be in it for the long haul.”

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The changes to everyday life also have a profound impact on food banks: As organizations built around creating one-on-one relationships with the clients they serve, they now must cut down on that personal contact.

Food banks are taking steps like prepackaging groceries for clients ahead of time, and distributing food to clients in their cars or outside their facilities.

Julie LaFontaine, president and CEO of The Open Door, which operates pantries in Gloucester and Ipswich, said officials leading food banks are doing their best to adapt to a widespread and rapidly changing environment.

The organization serves 10 communities in Essex county, and in 2019, provided food to nearly 8,300 people, LaFontaine said.

“One of the biggest concerns we all share -- these plans all depend on everyone staying healthy,” LaFontaine said. “We don’t know what it looks like if the workforce is depleted.”

Under normal circumstances, the Newton Food Pantry provides a grocery store setting for the roughly 750 people it serves, according to Tracie Longman, the organization’s president. Clients can visit the pantry, located at Newton City Hall, once a month during operating hours on Wednesdays and the third Saturday each month.

Because of the coronavirus, the pantry will provide clients with filled grocery bags containing a mix of nonperishable canned and boxed goods, along with staples including fruits and vegetables, she said.

“We’re trying to minimize waste, and get the staples to people. It will be a reduction in choice... we just don’t have the inventory capabilities to do that,” she said.

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During the school closures, families with children will be able to visit twice a month, she said. The pantry has also had to spread out its own volunteers in order to practice social distancing and reduce the number of people in the pantry at one time.

Clients who’ve contacted the pantry have expressed thanks for remaining open, she said -- many were concerned it would close because of the outbreak.

“The people we serve are the most vulnerable in our community,” Longman said. “Our service are probably more critical now than ever before.”

Donate to these food banks at the links below.

The Greater Boston Food Bank: www.gbfb.org/

Project Bread: www.projectbread.org/

Weymouth Food Pantry: www.weymouthfoodpantry.org/

The Open Door: www.foodpantry.org/index.html

Newton Food Pantry: www.newtonfoodpantry.org/


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.