“What has it been like running a food pantry during COVID-19” is the question Tim Boyd, Publisher of Georgia Voice, asked me. I am Lynn Pasqualetti, President/Board Chair of Toco Hills Community Alliance (THCA), and the words I use to describe our work since COVID-19 are “intense,” “stressful,” “physical,” and “fulfilling.”
THCA in non-COVID-19 times is a food and clothing pantry of choice serving about 225 families that also has an amazing hot lunch for those experiencing food insecurity in a nine ZIP code service area in DeKalb County. We are open three days a week — Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, using Monday and Friday as our food intake and processing days to prepare for clients. Our clients must be at or below 140% of the published poverty rate, which is $1354 a month for a single person and $471 per month per additional person. If the client is experiencing homelessness or is a veteran, they can be served outside our ZIP code area.
We are an independent 501(c)(3) and a partner agency with Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB). Our relationship as a partner agency with ACFB allows us to take advantage of available USDA food and also allows us to purchase food from them at deeply discounted rates. We are normally a pantry of choice, meaning our clients come in and get to shop for the foods they would like to eat. While they are waiting to shop, we provide a hot meal for lunch. Typically this consists of three meats, two or three vegetables, side dishes, salads, dessert and drinks prepared fresh each day by our amazing volunteer cooks. Many of our clients come for groceries, but ACFB has also become a place for clients to socialize and meet people they have come to know over the years of getting services, creating lasting relationships.
Our client base is 25% seniors, 15% veterans, 15% homeless, of which the majority are LGBTQ+ individuals, and 45% single people or families between 19 and 59 years old.
Since COVID-19, we are serving 425–500 families per week. We cannot have hundreds of people in our building and there is no way to social distance in our space, so we have moved to pre-packed boxes of food, including canned and dry goods, bread, fruit, vegetables, desserts and meats, and we are now serving people in a drive-up pantry. Those without transportation can walk up and get food. Hot lunches are no longer being served. Just recently we started putting clothing on rolling racks and taking them outside from 11:30–12:30 on Wednesday and Thursday of each week.
Our dining room is now a staging area for 150–200 boxes per day that are packed by our volunteers. It is backbreaking work, since you have to move cases and cases of food from one end of the building to another and each box has to be packaged with the dry goods. The following morning, the boxes have to be moved to carts so we can add in the perishable items and then they have to be moved out to the hallway and porch for distribution in the afternoon.
Every box or bag of food has to be loaded into the trunk of the car for each family or handed to those who walk up. An average box of food is approximately 50 pounds. As our Executive Director, the Rev. Dr. Lisa Heilig, says, it is like playing food Tetris for eight hours a day.
We are a volunteer-based organization with just three paid employees, two of whom are part-time. Our Executive Director is our only full-time employee. Our Volunteer Coordinator and our Kitchen Coordinator are both part-time. We have two contract people who come in and clean the building in the evening to make sure the building is clean and ready for the next day. The remainder of our staff are all volunteers, including me and our entire board of directors.
Our clients were worried we were going to close completely. Many pantries did exactly that, because most of them were run by volunteers over the age of 65, the primary at-risk group for coronavirus infection. We were in the same boat: 70% of our volunteers are at-risk either due to health issues or because of their age.
Based on the COVID-19 rules, food banks are considered essential, so we were able to stay open, but we could have no more than 10 people in the building at a time and we had to keep the public out of the building, wear masks, wear gloves, sanitize everything and stay six feet apart at all times. Imagine 10 people doing the work that 25–30 used to do and doubling the volume. Because a national emergency was declared, we were able to have the National Guard assist us, so since March 20 we have had two to four guardsmen assisting us. That has been a huge help.
We have been very fortunate to have many young people who are temporarily unemployed volunteer to pick up the slack for our seniors who have not been able to come in due to the risks. Additionally, the public has been amazing; with additional food donations and general financial donations, we have been able to fund the increase in volume.
While we have enjoyed so much support up to now from the community, I worry about long-term sustainability as our economy struggles to recover. As soon as the $600 per week unemployment runs out, I know we will see another uptick in volume.
What can you do to help THCA? Make a recurring cash donation of at least $100 per month for the next 18 plus months or a one-time $1800 donation via our website, www.tocohillsalliance.org. This will allow us to purchase from ACFB 10 times the amount of food we could buy at the store. In other words, $10 allows us to buy $100 worth of food from ACFB.
We are neighbors helping neighbors. Help us feed our struggling brothers and sisters.