Serving the Underserved

Serving the Underserved

Volunteerism During the Pandemic

Helping people has never been more challenging.

As the COVID pandemic has unfolded, Lehigh Valley food pantries and soup kitchens have seen a shift in need and numbers concerning the pool of people they serve, while struggling to meet the shifting dynamics of doing so.

Retiree Bob Hintze has served as a volunteer at Bethlehem Emergency Food Pantry since its inception in 1995 and also sits on the board of Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering.

“Most volunteers in every organization, from food pantries to shelters, are retirees,” he said. “I’m 70, and by CDC [Center for Disease Control] standards, older people should not be exposing themselves. Organizations are scratching their heads about how to do what they want to do and need to do while not exposing their volunteers.”

Bethlehem Emergency Food Pantry typically serves around 25 families weekly. Hintze said that, surprisingly, that particular pantry has seen that number decrease since COVID 19 began. Overall, though, he said, local agencies serving those in need of assistance have seen both growing supply (in terms of donations and service) and demand (for help) as those who require help ask and those who can serve.

“A strange phenomenon happened,” he said. “Before the pandemic, the way folks got food at our pantry was to come and register with us.” Registration is required, he said, because those served get food procured primarily from partner Second Harvest Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley, located in Nazareth, that is both donated through a USDA program or nominally purchased in order to cover the parent agency’s administrative costs. Second Harvest, which last year distributed more than 9 million pounds of food across six counties, is a Feeding America partner. Besides  contributions from the USDA, sources for that food include individuals and businesses.

“They are required to fill out a self-declaration of need form. We don’t ask them to prove anything, it just says ‘Here’s who I am, here’s the number of people in my family, and here’s my approximate income per week or month or year.’” The criteria for being needy enough to receive food assistance through the pantry is that an individual or family needs to be making less than 150 percent of the federal poverty standard, Hintze explained.

“You have to meet the criteria of being needy enough to get food,” he said, adding that it’s basically an honor system, as no one formally verifies the information provided.

“Before the pandemic, we would let people come in and shop at the food pantry – it was very much like grocery store.” That has shifted to drive-through or outside walkup service, Hintze said, with volunteers filling and distributing prepacked bags to clients – “things like peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, canned tuna, canned fruit, and juice.”
Hintze speculated that the decrease in the number of clients requesting food from the West Bethlehem Emergency Food Pantry could be a combination of people preferring to select their own items, fear of visiting the pantry – even when it’s outdoors – and other factors.

He said when he picks up food from Second Harvest – where the pantry routinely procures around 3,000 pounds of food for about $100 to $200 with help from grant subsidies and monetary donations – all indications are that volume and need are up.

He made the distinction that food pantries, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters typically serve a varying array of clients, although there is some crossover. 

“We’re seeing more homeless people come through our parking lot since January and February when the homeless shelters started to close. As a result, people were not getting the breakfasts and dinners they would typically get at the shelter. We started putting bags together exclusively for the homeless person – canned tuna and ravioli, etc. They’re probably not going to be able to do much with a roast or a turkey.”

Besides partnering with agencies such as Second Harvest, Hintze said food pantries and soup kitchens depend on volunteerism from individuals and organizations such as the Boy Scouts as well as the generosity of local businesses. “There’s a lot of need out there, but there are also a lot of good people willing to help. It’s almost like the loaves and fishes pass the basket and it fills.”

West Bethlehem Emergency Food Pantry is open Wednesdays from 10 a.m. until noon and the last Wednesday of each month 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. New Bethany Ministries soup kitchen at 333 West 4th Street in Bethlehem serves clients a hot meal weekdays from noon to 1 p.m.

“We serve around 100 people a day, said executive director Marc Rittle. “Since March it’s been a curbside and takeout. You cannot dine inside. Our numbers did go up, on average, 30 to 40 people a day.”

No questions are asked regarding level of need, he said. “You show up and you want food, we give it to you. We do feed a lot of homeless people at soup kitchen. If you are outside without a roof over head, you don’t typically go to food pantry.

“We have seen more people, but what’s really interesting to me is that we’re seeing many of the same people we’ve seen before but they are coming more often. To me, it means they have less cash than they have had in the past. If they typically go to pantry once a month and the grocery store the rest of the time and now they’re coming two or three times, I think that’s pretty significant.”

“We also offer showers and laundry services, a mailing address – all that has stayed in place. We’re worried about the cold weather coming and people having a warm place to be while it’s cold. We’re still working on that, as are most organizations. We are a soup kitchen, food pantry, and we also have transitional housing from 3 to 9 months, offering temporary housing while someone looks for a place to live.” The agency also provides subsidized permanent housing to low-income individuals and families, he said.

While New Bethany Ministries is also a Second Harvest partner, “we do also depend on donations from food drives from people in the community and community groups,” he said. We’re seeing an increase in need and more donations from private sources – families, community groups, churches, and the like.”

As homeless shelters face the cold and a continuing pandemic, they remain committed to their mission. An example of this is the shelter utilizing the space at Christ Church United Church of Christ (UCC) Bethlehem, at 75 E. Market St., which is run by Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering.

“There are homeless shelters in every community,” Hintze said. “They had to close in March because of their design – it’s not that they didn’t want to help people. They were crowded, and volunteers didn’t know much about the pandemic.” Now that more is known, Hintze said shelters like the one at the UCC church in Bethlehem will begin to operate with new protocols, including changes in food handling and other measures. “They’re moving things around so they can serve the same number of people and have people remain 6 feet apart in accordance with CDC guidelines.” 

New Bethany Ministries

West Bethlehem Emergency Food Pantry

Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering

Sharing the Harvest

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