Monroe County’s food pantries are working to restock before Christmas after helping families during one of the busiest holidays, and years, in recent memory.
“It’s crazy,” Hope Christian Church Food Pantry Director Becky Wilson said of the demand for food this year and holiday season. “We’re serving at least 300 cars a week.”
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Monroe County’s food pantries have seen an increase in the need for their services to varying degrees.
“We had a significant increase,” House of Neighborly Service Executive Director Tina Charron said. “It has been busy throughout the year. From when the pandemic started to now, we’ve definitely given out a lot more groceries and a lot more toiletries.”
In addition to more people needing help, the pantries have had to change how they provide assistance because of the pandemic, which has changed how much they give out.
“The overall demand as far as households hasn’t shifted too terribly much, but the overall amount of food we’re going through has increased just because our distribution process has changed because of COVID,” said Kendra Nowak, who is on the Board of Christian Caring and helps run the food pantry at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Columbia.
In that pantry’s case, Nowak explained that those who needed food used to be able to come in to pick out what they wanted and needed.
Because of the pandemic, however, the pantry now pre-packs boxes of items to reduce potential transmission of the virus. That system has resulted in more food on average per household.
HNS has done something similar, as it now keeps two paper bags full of grocery staples in its office at all times to give to people, along with toiletries and two meat items.
Earlier in the pandemic, it was difficult for some food pantries to get enough items to help people because of limits on buying certain items that stores imposed due to panic purchasing.
“At the time, we had plenty of money, but we couldn’t get anything in sufficient quantities because there were limits on everything,” Nowak recounted.
The community stepped up to fill that need with donations.
“I have more individual donations, and every donation is appreciated,” Wilson said, adding that many donations are needed to make Hope’s pantry operate.
“People have been fantastic with food donations,” Charron agreed. “We just did our Thanksgiving baskets, and we were beyond blessed with that.”
Now, the pantries will need the community’s help again to be ready for Christmas.
That is partly because of the increase in demand, with even smaller operations like St. Paul’s in Columbia seeing an over 30 percent increase in the households it served before Thanksgiving.
It is also because several Monroe County pantries rely heavily on Scouting For Food, which held a food drive this year instead of going door-to-door to pick up food like normal because of the pandemic.
That late change in plans and the bad weather on the day of the food drive resulted in much less food being collected.
“Huge kudos to the local scouts and the scout leaders for shifting gears so fast,” Nowak said. “But for us, the portion we received was probably only a quarter to a third of what we normally receive from them. It was still huge because our cupboards were getting bare. It helped tremendously, but we’re still on the lower side.”
While bulk donations are the most helpful — Wilson pointed out that each Thanksgiving bag Hope Food Pantry handed out contained approximately $50 worth of food in it — individual donations will be key to ensuring pantries can continue meeting the needs of the community for the rest of the holiday season.
Charron said HNS is particularly in need of canned meat, milk, bread, eggs, peanut butter, pasta, pasta sauces, pizza making kits and similar items.
“Any kind of stuff that you can stretch a little bit further or make different recipes with is always needed,” she said.
People can drop donations off at the HNS office, located at 1331 Jamie Lane in Waterloo, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday. To schedule an appointment if that time does not work, call 939-8900.
St. Paul’s food pantry, which serves Monroe County along with Dupo and East Carondelet, specifically needs canned or dried fruit, breakfast cereal, oatmeal and canned meat.
Those items can be dropped off in the collection bins on the church’s front porch. It is located at 227 N. Good Haven Drive in Columbia, which is where monetary donations can also be sent.
Those with larger donations can call the church at 281-4600 to set up a time to drop that off.
Donations to Hope Food Pantry, which serves people from across the metro east, can be dropped off at collection areas located in the main vestibule of the building.
The church’s address is 9723 Coach Stop Road in Columbia, and it needs standard Christmas foods.
For more information, call 939-9085 between 9 a.m. and noon on any weekday.
Although the need across Monroe County is great, Wilson said she is confident residents will fill it.
“I’m so grateful that we live in a community where people step up,” she said.
Another food pantry to support is at Concord Presbyterian Church, 338 Covington Drive, Waterloo. For more information on Concord Food Pantry or how to donate, call 618-939-7116 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.