Food pantries in the Upstate and Pee Dee have had to adjust to the coronavirus pandemic on the fly, like everyone else. They’ve seen need for food increase with spikes in South Carolinians out of work, as much as they seem increased demands on their time, energy, resources, and budgets.
But they’re also learning a lot about themselves, about the people who visit, and about the ones who help them with their missions. Here are three pantries and what they’re facing in the pandemic.
Manna House, Rock Hill: New Digs, But No More Hugs
Maybe the best metaphor for the coronavirus situation is what happened to Manna House Pantry. The pantry has been around for years, born and raised in a small, unassuming corner of Mount Prospect Baptist Church.
Manna House’s executive director, Sandra Evans, had wanted to move the operation to a bigger space. The pantry functions less like a soup kitchen and more like a small market, where clients shop available items (typically in stock thanks to supermarket rescue and donations) rather than line up for a prepared meal or to get a package of food.
Evans finally got the opportunity to put Manna House in a bigger space, where people could move around more easily and there would be more parking. The pantry set up in an unused wing of the complex used by Pathways – Rock Hill’s main hub of homeless and social services.
Move-in day turned out to be April 4, just when social distancing and stay-home orders were kicking in.
The timing put a crimp in Manna House’s usual method of doing business, which was based on the concept of giving visitors a sense of normalcy.
“When clients can pick out what they want, or what they would like to have,” Evans says, “it kind of keeps their dignity. They’re not getting a bag of food shoved at them.”
But the coronavirus changed the game plan. Visitors to Manna House no longer come inside to shop.
Rather, they wait outside, in line, and receive an order of well-selected food on Saturday mornings.
One of the bigger casualties for Evans and her staff of volunteers is the loss of getting to connect personally with clients, including the ones new to the pantry and to the need to visit one; the ones, Evans says, who need a hug.
“I’ve had people start crying and say ‘I’ve never had to do this in my life,’” she says. “And you just say, ‘Look, it’s going to be OK. We’re here to help you. We’ll make it real easy.’ We can’t do that anymore. I miss that.
But the operation at Manna House has been running smoothly – moreso, in fact, than how it used to run at Mount Prospect. Evans says that food service would start before sunup and often take until deep into the afternoon. But with the lineups demanded by the coronavirus, service begins by about 9:30 a.m. and the staff is home in time for lunch.
Also, the new way of running things is giving the staff a chance to teach visitors about things they might not be familiar with. Take mangoes, for instance.
“Most of the people who come through here have never tasted a mango,” Evan says. “They’ll see it in a supermarket, but if you have a limited budget, are you going to go with bananas, something that your familiar with, or are you going to go with this strange little multicolored thing that looks like an egg, but it’s not?”
Evans says that over the years Manna House has gotten plenty of mangoes, or large, exotic grapes, among other produce that clients might not be familiar with– and she’s always had to throw them out in droves because visitors didn’t put them in their baskets. Now, with mangoes included, people are getting a chance to try them. So far, Evans says, the verdict has been pretty uniformly positive.
Like other food pantries, Manna House has seen generosity firsthand. Evans says farmers have brought sweet potatoes and buttermilk. At least one client has brought homemade masks for the staff to wear.
“Humanity is amazing,” she says, with a touch of wistfulness. “It’s sad that it has taken this for us to realize how important we are to each other. I just hope we don’t forget.”
Golden Corner Food Pantry, Seneca: ‘A Great Community Effort’
On April 13, Seneca, in Oconee County, suffered the wrath of tornadoes. Less than a mile from where Golden Corner Food Pantry sits, long strips of trees, and any buildings unfortunate enough to be in the twisters’ paths, were blow down and pulled apart.
But the storms sidestepped this pantry, which is the size of a small airplane hangar. In the wake of the storms, Golden Corner’s director, Mike Harlin, said he’d expected a wave of new faces displaced by property damage caused by a storm that hit in the middle of a pandemic.
As it turned out, the storms were in the middle of the month – early enough, in other words, for people with SNAP benefits to still have money to spend on food. Times are usually busier at the end of the month, Harlin says, when money runs low and families need more often to turn to assistance programs like at Golden Corner.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, clients used to come inside to check in and give staff some personal information.
“We’d verify that their information hadn’t changed,” Harlin says. “We’d also provide them with some information to help them on things other than food.”
Golden Corner has a client education approach that offers advice on everything from paying bills to navigating prescriptions. In the days before the pandemic, staff and volunteers would sit and discuss options with visitors. That’s been reconfigured to simply including pamphlets and handouts among the food distributed here, and the pantry has adopted it’s longstanding, once-a-week drive-through food pickup as its full-time way of running the operation.
Also shifted is who gets food. Names and databases were not being crosschecked in the aftermath of the tornadoes. Now, Harlin says, if someone shows up needing food, they leave with it.
Then there is who is helping hand out the food. Like a lot of organizations that run on volunteer help, Golden Corner’s main pool of assistance comes from people at and above retirement age. With COVID-19 being so especially dangerous to people over age 60, food pantries have watched their typical volunteer staffs virtually disappear as seniors ride out the pandemic at home.
But then there’s this:
“We’ve had such support from others who don’t find themselves working, who are affiliated with a local church and just want to help out,” Harlin says. “It’s been such a great community effort.”
HOPE, Lancaster: Out with the Old, Ready or Not
HOPE – Helping Other People Effectively – is a full-scale social services agency just at the edge of downtown Lancaster. It oversees three food distribution operations – at the center, at Lancaster schools, where students get free lunches, and in Indian Land, where seniors can get meals.
A couple months ago, you might run into 70 volunteers at HOPE; and they would be most likely to guide you through the array of services the agency offers – from bill pay help to job and living advice to cooking for yourself and your family.
But the sharp spike in unemployment numbers wrought by the coronavirus lockdown has upped the demand on what was one of HOPE’s less focused-on services, it’s food pantry.
“For sure we’ve expanded our food services,” says Bekah Clawson, HOPE’s executive director. “I would say it’s four to five times more people for food.”
It’s also ramped up the demands placed on the staff. Kristen Dickson, the agency’s director of development
and marketing, says that pool of 70-ish volunteers (mostly 70-ish years of age) plummeted almost overnight to the core group of eight salaried employees.
“And then, one of our staff is high-risk and had to stay home, so we went down to seven,” she says.
There were tears, there were long (long) hours, and there was the need to adjust absolutely everything they’d always done and start again, she says. The staff got some relief from a wave of new volunteers, who Clawson says, came in because they were out of work (and bored) and wanted to do something meaningful.
But in a twist of irony, the agency that made its name helping people through financial setbacks is struggling through the weighty realities of running a larger operation in the face of a costly pandemic. Costs to run a much-increased food pantry daily have doubled the budget. Plus, the relief Clawson was hoping to get – from the Paycheck Protection Program – didn’t happen.
“I’m really concerned how payroll’s going to play out,” she says. “But there’s always a way. Somehow. Maybe.”
Throwing the playbook out has given HOPE at least one thing it didn’t know it needed – the ability to find, in real time, what works and what doesn’t; what’s worth keeping when the pandemic subsides and what doesn’t need to stick around.
“We’re going to be keeping some practices relating to our website,” says Susan Dolphin, HOPE’s assistant director. “We’re going to keep … how we process our food and how we bring it in and how we bring it out. We’ve become quite the machine in being able to move a lot of food in and out of here.”
Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan