CORONAVIRUS

Hunger relief groups scramble to meet more needs amid coronavirus spread

Workload increases but resources don't as more people look for help

For the first time in 24 years, Iowa City food rescue nonprofit Table to Table briefly shut down.

The organization, back in operation now, needed to figure out how to keep going after asking all its volunteers over age 60 to stay home to protect them from the spread of the coronavirus. But between that demographic and University of Iowa students who had gone home after the residence halls were closed and classes moved online, suddenly most of the organization’s volunteer base was gone.

“We have 80 to 120 volunteers a week. We’d have to pay nine people full time to do the work of our volunteers. We have a less than $400,000 budget to rescue 2.5 million pounds of food a year,” said executive director Nicki Ross. “We took a look at our schedule, and we only had 20 percent of our volunteers left.”

So last week it suspended operations for three days while it figured out how to make things work. Along with seeing fewer volunteers, Table to Table was seeing fewer donations from some of its regular sources, such as restaurants and the UI cafeterias. The other major donors are grocery stores, which are themselves having a hard time keeping shelves filled.

“We basically had to restructure our entire operation,” Ross said.

Table to Table’s new normal is 25 food rescue routes a week — down from 50 to 60. All this comes as the food pantries and meal programs it serves are preparing to ramp up services in the face of skyrocketing unemployment.

One of those is the North Liberty Community Food Pantry. The pantry, which typically serves 200 to 300 families a week, also has asked most volunteers to stay home, said Executive Director Kaila Rome. That means three full-time and one part-time staff members are doing the work of the 220 volunteers the nonprofit normally has each month.

The amount of work also has gone up, as the pantry is pre-packing bags of food to hand to clients in a drive-through-style pickup.

Rome said donating money rather than food is the best way to help.

“In-kind donations are more work for us to sanitize and weigh and sort — financial donations make it the easiest for us to order food,” she said.

She also encouraged people to check on their neighbors, especially those in the most at-risk groups, to ensure they have the food they need.

Those having trouble accessing food have a new resource: The North Liberty Food Pantry is partnering with three other Johnson County nonprofits — CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank, Coralville Community Food Pantry and IC Compassion — to offer food deliveries for those in need who are isolated at home.

People can call (319) 519-6165 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays to request food delivery. The requests are routed to the different agencies. Recipients will receive pre-packed bags of food based on what is available. Johnson County SEATS is providing delivery to rural addresses.

Julie Palmer, director of the Olivet Neighborhood Mission in Cedar Rapids, said she’s had 15 to 25 new people show up in need of assistance over the last two weeks.

“Most are people who just lost jobs. It’s been a lot of new faces,” she said.

She said the pantry also moved to mostly pre-boxed food, and she lets only one person inside the building at a time, or two people at a time to access the perishable food shelves. The organization has closed access to the donated clothes closet for now.

The food pantry, at 230 10th St. NW in Cedar Rapids, serves nearly 1,200 households a month.

Hiawatha-based nonprofit HACAP also is preparing to ramp up services. The organization runs mobile food pantries and has a food reservoir that provides food to 125 partner agencies in Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn and Washington counties.

“In the last two weeks we spent nearly $80,000 on food — normally that’s what we would spend over a six-month period,” said food reservoir Director Kim Guardado. “We’re trying to secure as much as food as we can right now.”

Communications and volunteer Manager Chris Ackman said HACAP is anticipating need will jump in the next couple of weeks as laid-off workers miss their first paychecks. It is planning a pop-up food pantry starting at 1 p.m. April 9 in the parking lot of Veteran’s Memorial Stadium. Information on other mobile food pantry locations will be at www.hacap.org/mfp. The mobile food pantries have also moved to a drive-through model.

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One bright spot Ackman noted is that the organization saw an increase in volunteers last week after it put out a call on social media for help sorting and packing the increased amount of food coming in.

“They were mainly students and teachers who were off school,” he said. “It was really kind of nice to see they wanted to get out and do something and give back.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.