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Food pantries experiencing 'perfect storm' with coronavirus

Central Oregon food pantries are losing donations as demand increases

PORTLAND, Ore — St. Vincent de Paul food pantry in Bend, like other food pantries in Central Oregon, is facing a dilemma during the coronavirus pandemic.

The pantry off Third Street is losing volunteers who are in self-quarantine, losing donations from grocery stores where shelves are bare and yet the demand for food increases.

This week, the pantry saw about 60 people a day, double what it usually serves. The additional 30 each day are first-time visitors, said Gary Witt, Bend’s St. Vincent de Paul food pantry manager.

“This is going to be a perfect storm,” Witt said. “And in a few weeks, we’ll see a lot more people coming in who have never come in before.”

Witt believes many of the new visitors are food service workers who were recently laid off as restaurants have been forced to close to help stop the spread of the virus.

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Unlike the pantry’s busiest season over the holidays, the pandemic has made it even more difficult to meet the growing need, Witt said. And the spike in visitors is not expected to stop.

“It might triple or quadruple our output in the next couple of months,” Witt said.

Grocery stores donate about 4,000 pounds of food per week to the pantry, but they have not been able to donate much food over the past week, Witt said. Bulk purchases by consumers have left stores with less to donate.

But the pantry shelves are not entirely bare. NeighborImpact, the service organization that acts as the region’s food bank, is still supplying food to local pantries.

Getting the donated food to pantry visitors is the ongoing challenge.

Bend’s St. Vincent de Paul food pantry is down to half its volunteer support with about five people volunteering at one time.

“We have a really skeleton staff,” Witt said.

The volunteers are taking precautions with the coronavirus and are keeping visitors outside. Food boxes are delivered to people through a window in the lobby area. Each volunteer wears gloves and keeps the pantry stantized.

Witt said the pantry plans to stay open. The worst case would be providing less food to people, but food will be available, he said.

“That would be the only concession we would have to make,” Witt said.

The St. Vincent de Paul food pantry in Prineville is facing the same struggles as the location in Bend.

Charlie Kurtz, president of the Prineville pantry, said it served 48 people on Tuesday, just two shy of the maximum amount it can serve.

“Folks are coming in just like the grocery stores,” Kurtz said. “Hitting as hard as they can.”

The Prineville pantry is also down to half its volunteers, with about six to eight working when the pantry is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Instead of letting visitors pick out food inside the pantry, the volunteers are pre-packaging boxes and handing them to visitors at a drive-thru and a walk-thru location.

“We consider ourselves providing an essential service,” Kurtz said. “We are trying to be smart about it and keep the risk on our volunteers as low as possible.”

In Sisters, the Kiwanis Food Bank will be open every other Thursday instead of every Thursday to protect its volunteers during the pandemic.

Volunteers are wearing gloves and regularly wash and sanitize their hands. Visitors are asked to wash or sanitize their hands before entering. And only two visitors enter at one time.

Tom Hespe, resource officer for the Sisters Kiwanis Food Bank, said it has not seen the same hurdles as others in the region. It is still getting consistent donations from its usual sources, Ray’s Food Place in Sisters, Oliver Lemon’s grocery store in Sisters and Food 4 Less in Bend.

In addition, its volunteers, including some who are Kiwanis members, continue to show up to help.

“We are getting normal deliveries today,” Hespe said Wednesday. “We are trying to keep things as normal as possible because people are relying on us.”

Last Thursday, the Sisters food bank served 44 people. Hespe knows that number could rise this Thursday and future days as the coronavirus outbreak continues.

For now, the food bank is ready and open to serve.

“It’s a moving target,” he said. “We are positioned to continue our service to our community as planned as long as some other outside forces don’t cause us to go a different direction.”

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This article was originally published by The Bulletin, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving heath issue.