Food pantries are navigating an increasing need across Montgomery County as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact daily life.

Now that the holiday season has concluded and the harsh winter months progress, organizations need to keep up with the demand of those in need.

Paula Schafer, executive director of the MontCo Anti-Hunger Network, has been overseeing the facilitation of resources for more than 40 food pantries over the course of the public health crisis.

“Most of my food pantries are operating at 50 percent above the normal numbers that they serve this time of the year,” Schafer said. “So people are very concerned about that.”

Pre-pandemic, Manna on Main Street in Lansdale typically had between 275 and 300 families per week getting groceries from the organization. Over the past 10 months, that number nearly doubled, averaging about 552 families per week, according to Britt Peterson, Manna food resource director. In addition, the food pantry has 3,500 Meals on Wheels deliveries and assembles another 2,800 premade meals per week.

“We usually just take care of the greater Lansdale area, but now we’re doing anybody that comes in our door,” she said.

Peterson said that thankfully along with increased demand has come community generosity.

“We were so blessed over the holidays to receive so much food that we’re sitting pretty good right now,” Peterson said. “Of course there’s always what’s gonna happen in the future?”

LeeAnn Rooney, executive director of the Patrician Society in Norristown, agreed.

“In January we’re usually pretty well set,” Rooney said. “If you would come into our pantry right now you would … see that everything is stocked, everything is full, but as fast as it was coming in through all these fantastic wonderful drives through the holidays, it’s going out just as quickly.”

Rooney said that the nonprofit reached approximately 1,100 people prior to the pandemic, but she said that number spiked to 2,200 over the past 10 months with people coming to the Norristown pantry from as far as Pottstown and Philadelphia.

“It’s been incredibly, extraordinary times for us,” Rooney said. “We have doubled the number of families that we have seen here at the food cupboard… families we have never seen before here.”

Rooney recalled that of the 70 families assisted on Jan. 5, 15 families came to the food pantry for the first time. She added that they’ll typically get between three and five new families.

“That was exorbitant. You’re seeing so many and it’s only just January,” Rooney said.

“I feel like a lot of our clients have been furloughed from their jobs or have lost their jobs,” Peterson said. “They’re trying to just get money together to pay rent so they don’t have money for food, and even those that are working, they’re still struggling trying to get enough money together for all of their bills so they don’t lose their homes and things like that.”

“I don’t think we’re gonna see a dip for a while,” Peterson said.

Schafer agreed.

“It’s gonna take a long time for those people to recover that stability that they had before the pandemic, if they’re able to recover it at all,” she said. “There’s no doubt that there will be some percentage of people who will never be in the same position after the pandemic that they were in before.”

People, families needing support

“I’ve had countless conversations with folks who never thought that they would be in a situation where they needed it and some who didn’t know that we existed until [they] had to know that this year,” said Barbara Wilhelmy, executive director of the Pottstown Cluster of Religious Communities in Pottstown.

Wilhelmy said the organization is the “largest pantry in the western area of Montgomery County,” serving roughly “475 households every month with food just out of our front door.” The Cluster serves the “greater Pottstown area,” which consists of people living in Pottstown and surrounding communities including Upper Pottsgrove, Sanatoga and Stowe.

Wilhelmy, who also serves as the treasurer of the MontCo Anti-Hunger Network, cultivated relationships with Philabundance to assist another seven smaller organizations, “touching another 500 families across other areas of the county that aren’t coming to our door.”

The MontCo Anti-Hunger Network partners with the Share Food Program, key players in the fight against food insecurity.

Wilhelmy added the contract with Philabundance “designates our organization as redistribution organization,” which allows food to be redistributed … to smaller pantries and food programs in the area.

Wilhelmy said her nonprofit worked with the Pottstown School District and The Ricketts Center to assist more individuals, which brought the average to about 565 households.

“I think the demographics from what I'm seeing, the demographics in terms of just the individual characteristics: race, ethnicity, age are pretty similar to what we’ve seen and are fairly representative of what I see our overall population demographics are in this area,” Wilhelmy said.

Obstacles food pantries face

For food pantries across Montgomery County, funding, weather, volunteers, and the newly discovered COVID-19 strain were just some obstacles as operations began in 2021.

Schafer noted concerns surrounding potential exposure to the new “virus variant” for those working and volunteering at food pantries.

“It is an added layer of risk to the whole food pantry operation,” she said.

In order to comply with COVID-19 health and safety regulations, food pantries conducted much of their distribution outdoors in the spring, summer and fall. With winter comes freezing temperatures and varying forms of precipitation, and Schafer said they’re “concerned about managing logistics of winter elements during distribution.”

Officials said that organizations had to adapt by using several resources including heat lamps and tents.

As for funding, many area food pantries received federal funding via the The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package passed by Congress and enacted by President Donald Trump in late-March 2020.

“We’ve had a huge infusion of CARES Act funding, and dollars for federal food programs, and SNAP benefits were augmented in the fall and that’s all coming to an end,” Schafer said. “We are losing a huge chunk, a huge percentage of the emergency dollars that were infused into the community to help people navigate this hardship and the big question is will there be more dollars coming down the pike and when will they be coming?”

Schafer applauded the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners authorization of “an additional $1 million” for the MontCo Anti-Hunger Network food pantries to purchase additional food supplies. However, Schafer said “that money is going out the door faster ... it's making my head spin how fast it’s getting spent.”

“A million dollars sounds like a big chunk of money but it’s all gonna be gone by the end of February,” she continued.

“We have more people than ever to feed and an uncertainty about resources,” Schafer said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also presented difficulties for those who give their time to help food pantries. Peterson said that Manna on Main Street requires 42 volunteers per day.

“Volunteers is our biggest need because we need good quality volunteers because we can’t have a lot of volunteers due to social distancing,” she said. 

Rooney acknowledged a similar sentiment, adding her organization has had “over 60 different volunteers throughout the last nine, 10 months.”

Schafer recognized the possibility of “volunteer fatigue” and “donor fatigue” for people not able to give more time or money as the pandemic continues to drag on.

Despite possible obstacles and uncertainty of what the future will bring for food pantries and residents across the county, organizers expressed gratitude to county officials for their ongoing relationship, as well as to the community for the monetary and food donations.

“I’m a firm believer in the comment of ‘it takes a village,’ and I've definitely seen the village working this year,” Wilhelmy said.

Food security organizations across Montgomery County have more information online about their donation needs and volunteer opportunities. For more information about Manna on Main Street, visit mannaonmain.org. To learn more about the Patrician Society, check out the website at www.patriciansociety.org. Visit www.pottstowncluster.org for more information about the Pottstown Cluster of Religious Communities. Go to www.montcoantihunger.org to learn more about the MontCo Anti-Hunger Network.

@rachelravina on Twitter

Rachel Ravina is a journalist covering news and lifestyle features in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. She grew up in Blue Bell and graduated from Penn State. She's also a news enthusiast who is passionate about covering topics people want to read.

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