Three volunteers stand outside of the Pennsylvania Avenue Interfaith Food Pantry in Allentown. Lehigh Valley food banks are taking precautions to ensure the food they accept are virus-free. (Courtesy of Cindy Shipman)

Local food banks forced to make operational changes in response to pandemic

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Lehigh Valley food banks have experienced many COVID-related changes in the past six months that have forced them to modify their normal operations.

While some food banks saw a decrease in their volunteer numbers, others had to close down temporarily.

Jim Byrnes, the director of Nazareth Area Food Bank, said they had to halt operations from the middle of March until their August distribution date. Despite its closure, the food bank found a way to continue helping clients.

“We sent our clients gift cards in the mail for four months,” Byrnes said. “That allowed them to buy food on their own rather than picking up parcels of food here.”

Byrnes said they chose to do this because they didn’t want to put volunteers or clients at risk through in-person distribution. 

The food bank was able to provide these gift cards due to generous monetary donations from the surrounding Nazareth community, Byrnes said.

Now that Nazareth Area Food Bank has reopened, Byrnes said they are taking special precautions to make sure everyone involved in the distribution process is safe.

“We decided that we would distribute the food outside the building,” Byrnes said. “We use carts to ferry the bags of food to people’s cars.”

This method allows for less person-to-person contact in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Several other food banks have taken up similar procedures to maintain social distancing guidelines.

“What we’ve been doing since March is pre-bagging everything, and then we bring it outside and put it directly into people’s cars,” said Cindy Shipman, the director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Interfaith Food Pantry in Allentown. “We haven’t allowed anyone to come into the pantry.”

Shipman said the pantry has also been careful with what food they accept as donations to ensure the food they’re distributing is virus-free.

One factor that has varied between food banks in the region is the number of people needing to be served. Shipman said that, at Pennsylvania Avenue Interfaith, she hasn’t noticed much change in the number of people coming since the pandemic began. 

At Catasauqua Food Bank, however, it’s a different story.

“Initially we had less people coming, and we figured that was because there were more groups giving out free food,” said Eugenia Emert, the director of Catasauqua Food Bank. “Lately, our numbers have returned to pre-COVID amounts.”

Similarly, Trinity Soup Kitchen’s numbers went down in the beginning of the pandemic but have returned to normal in the past week.

Pre-pandemic, we were serving 100 to 150 (meals) daily,” Bethlehem’s Trinity Soup Kitchen Coordinator Liz Russo said in an email. “Our first week under COVID restrictions we served 274 meals (for an average of 54 meals per day), and last week we served 584 meals (for an average of 117 meals per day).”

Russo said their numbers typically dip at the beginning of each month when people receive government checks and then spike again at the end of the month. Russo said this spike has been especially high lately since no further pandemic assistance from the government has been issued.

Another shift many food banks have seen since the beginning of the pandemic is a decrease in the number of people volunteering.

Shipman said many of the volunteers at Pennsylvania Avenue Interfaith are older, so a large chunk of them have opted not to come in for fear of catching the virus.

Emert said she’s also seen a drop in the number of volunteers since March, but the donations the food bank received during this time have helped significantly. 

“Our donations have been phenomenal,” Emert said. “People have donated food, (and) they’ve donated money.”

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