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In Salem, staving off hunger one bag of groceries at a time

Bryan Gargan (right), a senior at Salem State University, gets food at the Salem Pantry's food distribution station on campus.
Bryan Gargan (right), a senior at Salem State University, gets food at the Salem Pantry's food distribution station on campus.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

SALEM — The line stretched through Palmer Cove Park as it always does when the food pantry workers unload the produce and pasta and beans. A few people held an electricity bill or other proof of Salem residency as they waited so they could claim a bag or two of groceries. A toddler in a red T-shirt skittered about in the brilliant autumn sun.

“Do you need a schedule, too? Because we changed the schedule,” Alice Merkl, a Salem Pantry volunteer, asked of everyone in line. “Hello! Good to see you again. Do you need a schedule? En Español helpful?”

Like many food banks, the Salem Pantry has seen demand soar during the COVID-19 crisis, and with the city’s signature Halloween festivities canceled or limited and even Governor Charlie Baker urging revelers to stay away, economic hardship here looks likely to deepen. The number of clients in the pantry’s database has nearly tripled, from 900 before the pandemic to 2,600 now. Food distribution at Salem State University is now held every Wednesday in addition to alternate Saturdays at Palmer Cove Park. A family grocery program, in partnership with the Salem schools, takes place Mondays and Fridays.

“October sustains Salem in the winter, and this year we don’t have that,” said Jacquie Valatka, who picked up vegetables at Palmer Cove. As business manager at the House of the Seven Gables, one of Salem’s historic attractions, she was worried about what Halloween cancellations will mean for jobs in the city, including her own. At this time of year on a weekend, the Seven Gables would typically welcome a thousand visitors a day.

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“We’re maybe at 10 percent of what we normally do,” Valatka said. “So it’s tough.”

Fallout from the pandemic has hit Salem hard. Almost 18 percent of the city’s residents are Latino, a population that has been disproportionately affected by the outbreak. And long before COVID struck, more than 15 percent of Salem residents were living below the poverty line, according to census data, about 4 percent more than the state average.

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The shutdown pushed food distribution to 400 percent of what it had been, and increased demand lingered through summer. In August, two forces conspired to drive need higher still: the enhanced unemployment benefits so many relied on dropped off at the end of July, and Salem saw a spike in COVID cases that temporarily landed it on the state’s list of high-risk communities. The Salem Pantry distributed nearly 100,000 pounds of food in August, more than any other month since the pandemic began.

A woman collects food at the Salem Pantry's food distribution center at Salem State.
A woman collects food at the Salem Pantry's food distribution center at Salem State. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

And now, with colder weather moving in and another federal coronavirus relief package looking iffy, hopes for a quick turnaround have dimmed. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll recently announced further Halloween restrictions because of the health crisis. Businesses will close early. Parking will be limited. But better to take precautions now, Driscoll has told local business leaders, than to see virus cases spike later.

“It’s not just about October,” she said. “It’s about November, December, and January. We don’t want to do anything now that’s going to push us into a phase that we’d have to shut down completely.”

Baker echoed her concerns . “A typical Halloween weekend in Salem is not manageable with respect to the issues that the mayor and her team are talking about today,” he said, pointing out that on a normal weekend day 50,000 to 60,000 visitors — “a Gillette Stadium’s worth of people” — would be jostling along the city streets this time of year. “Vigilance is critical here.”

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Samantha Johanson, manager of operations for the Salem Pantry's food distribution program, places pasta and dried beans in a bag at Salem State.
Samantha Johanson, manager of operations for the Salem Pantry's food distribution program, places pasta and dried beans in a bag at Salem State. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Robyn Burns, the Salem Pantry’s executive director, looks toward the coming months with trepidation. “There’s just this uncertainty," she said. “And, more practically speaking, some of the food streams are potentially drying up.”

The pantry is a small operation, just one strand in a web of organizations in cities and towns across Massachusetts straining to meet the sharp rise in hunger as the pandemic grinds on. The pantry, along with more than 500 partner agencies in Eastern Massachusetts, works with the Greater Boston Food Bank, which projects that more than one in seven Massachusetts residents will experience food insecurity this year, including one in five children. Additional food streams have helped during COVID, but they are short-term supports. A USDA Farmers to Family program, extended twice during the pandemic, is slated to end this month.

Josefina Jimenez (left) gets help pushing her cart from Dulce Velez as she brings back groceries she picked up from the Salem Pantry's food distribution program at Salem State for herself and two other families in the Rainbow Terrace housing development where she lives.
Josefina Jimenez (left) gets help pushing her cart from Dulce Velez as she brings back groceries she picked up from the Salem Pantry's food distribution program at Salem State for herself and two other families in the Rainbow Terrace housing development where she lives. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“It’s not just that we have so many more clients,” said Burns, “it’s that people are coming so many more times a month because some of their other sources of food or income are not available.”

Hunger cuts across populations here. At the Salem State pantry, college students and some employees affiliated with the school come each week, as do neighbors. At Palmer Cove Park, in a neighborhood that’s home to many Latino families, most of those who waited in line on a recent Saturday spoke Spanish. Frail seniors wheeled carts stacked with peanut butter, macaroni, and shelf-stable milk. A middle-aged man in camouflage told volunteers he hoped his appointment at Lahey Medical Center in Peabody would alleviate his excruciating back pain.

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Getting food to those in need has been an exercise in nimbleness and creativity. More elderly clients, at high risk for coronavirus, needed food delivered. Pantry distribution sites had to be modified for safety. Even the process of bagging groceries had to change to keep clients and volunteers socially distanced. In the midst of it all, with the help of grants, they built out a food storage and distribution warehouse at Shetland Park. They bought a van and started using a route optimizer to deliver more food, faster.

These days, other organizations set up alongside the pantry as a way to reach residents. One weekend, North Shore Medical Center provided virus testing. The North Shore Community Development Coalition delivered toiletries, hygiene products, and diapers. Census workers came. The League of Women Voters set up a tent to get people registered.

On this Saturday, Stephen Zrike Jr. arrived holding a stack of fliers. Zrike became superintendent of the Salem Public Schools on July 1 but struggled to meet parents and families, especially those who might need additional services from the schools. He finally found himself at Palmer Cove Park. The fliers let families know about a “geek squad” of bilingual parents who were available to help with computer or technical problems associated with remote learning.

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“This is the most people you’ll find anywhere,” Zrike said, motioning to the crowd lined up for groceries. “People aren’t congregating, and they shouldn’t be. So that makes it a little hard to get the word out.”

Natalie Buhrman of Salem (right) and her roommate, Jazmine Nova (center), picked up food at the Salem Pantry's food distribution program at Salem State. Buhrman, who graduated from college in May, is still unemployed and said that the program helps her to save money on food.
Natalie Buhrman of Salem (right) and her roommate, Jazmine Nova (center), picked up food at the Salem Pantry's food distribution program at Salem State. Buhrman, who graduated from college in May, is still unemployed and said that the program helps her to save money on food. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Soon the pantry crew will have to quit the park. It’ll be too cold, and the wind off the harbor could blow the tents over. They’ll return to Espacio, a small storefront a couple of blocks away. That’ll be an adjustment: health guidelines could mean fewer volunteers to a shift. Only one or two clients will be allowed inside at a time, so it’ll be slow going. At Salem State, they’ll be in a smaller space, too. And if virus cases surge, as many epidemiologists fear they will, pantry organizers will have to figure out new strategies to keep residents safe and fed.

Rebecca Babbitt Chafe, a pantry volunteer, said the changes can be challenging, but the goal is to maintain consistency for the food bank clients. Thinking about the coming months makes her nervous, she said, but also determined.

“We’ve all got to roll with the punches these days, right?” she said.

Natalie Buhrman (left), of Salem, and her roommate, Jazmine Nova, after picking up food from the Salem Pantry's food distribution program.
Natalie Buhrman (left), of Salem, and her roommate, Jazmine Nova, after picking up food from the Salem Pantry's food distribution program. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff



Hayley Kaufman can be reached at hayley.kaufman@globe.com.