BEND, Ore. — With record unemployment and financial stress from the coronavirus pandemic, Central Oregon food pantries are seeing a surge in new clients.
At first, the pantries were struggling to meet the need. Volunteers were staying home to self-quarantine, and donations dried up from grocery stores that were running low on food.
But in recent weeks, new volunteers have joined to help, and pantries are receiving an increase in food donations from individuals, grocery stores and cattle ranches
“This is a trying time,” said Gary Hewitt, Bend’s St. Vincent de Paul food pantry manager. “But I’m amazed how the community is coming together.”
Hewitt estimates his pantry off Third Street received 1,200 pounds of food from individuals over the past week. One of the donors was a furloughed pilot who brought $500 worth of groceries and a $200 cash donation then came back and gave the same amount the next day.
The Bend pantry, along with other pantries, shelters and churches in Prineville, La Pine, Redmond, Madras and Sisters, will soon receive a boost in meat donations from the Powell Butte-based Ten Seventeen Project, a nonprofit that seeks to provide beef to food pantries.
The cattle ranch is planning to increase its donation of beef by 166%, according to Jordan Weaver, founder and executive director of the Ten Seventeen Project.
Since 2014, the organization has donated beef from six cattle each month.
It plans to increase that amount to 16 cattle a month for the next three months.
Hewitt said getting a portion of the donated meat, in addition to other food donations, will help feed the increase of people coming to the food pantry. The Bend pantry usually feeds about 40 to 60 people each day. Now, it is feeding at least 70 to 75 people a day.
The pantry also expanded its hours and is offering home delivery.
In a few weeks, Hewitt expects to see another wave of people who are in tight financial situations and waiting for the coronavirus stimulus checks of up to $1,200 from the federal government, he said.
“The next two to three weeks, we might see a huge amount of people,” Hewitt said. “I have a feeling April is going to be a record.”
Carly Sanders, food program manager for NeighborImpact, the service organization that acts as the region’s food bank, said the organization is distributing double the amount of food to help the food pantries in Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties.
About 80,000 pounds of food is being distributed each week, which is double the normal amount.
NeighborImpact has also used social media to recruit new volunteers for the area food pantries, which lost many older volunteers who are safely self-isolating at home.
The response has been positive, and food pantries are starting to get the help they need, Sanders said.
“It was a challenge,” Sanders said. “But now we have found a whole new stream of volunteers who have been willing to step into those roles.”
Bend’s St. Vincent de Paul food pantry was down to three to five volunteers each day, when it normally had at least seven. The pantry is returning to normal volunteer support.
Many of the new volunteers are recently furloughed and laid off teachers, restaurant workers and employees at Bend Park & Recreation District.
Bend resident Sabrina Pinkerton, who works in the human resources department at UPS, still has her job but is now working from home and has flexible hours.
Two weeks ago, Pinkerton decided to take some time in the afternoons to volunteer at Bend’s St. Vincent de Paul food pantry.
She gathers the donated food and creates meal boxes for those in need.
Pinkerton used to volunteer at a church food pantry in Portland, and was looking for a volunteer opportunity when she moved to Bend last August.
“I had been wanting to go do it,” she said. “But I wasn’t sure where or how.”
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 health issue.