Alabama food banks adjust, prepare for more challenging days ahead

Photo courtesy of Prodisee Pantry

Alabama food banks adjust, prepare for more challenging days ahead

For Deann Servos, the daily routine at Prodisee Pantry in Baldwin County has been anything but business as usual in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And the executive director of the food pantry in Spanish Fort doesn’t see things returning to normal anytime soon. Since the food pantry began implementing social distancing guidelines, Servos has had to work with a skeleton crew team of about 50 (they normally operate with 150–200) volunteers.

While businesses continue to open up and get back to a new sense of normal, food banks continue to operate under a busier than normal demand — and all hands on deck are needed.

“We normally see in about a month 1,000 families,” she said, “and so if you do the math … we’re seeing three times the families in a month.”

Challenges in a crisis

Since mid-March, her team has had to deal with several challenges. Nearby highway construction meant shifting their Tuesday drive-through food distributions to a high school parking lot. They’ve also started interviewing people in their vehicles. And in addition to working with a smaller team, social distancing simply takes up a lot more space.

“We have a 50,000 square-foot facility,” she said. “But you start mapping out this social distancing, it gets small very quickly.”

One positive is that cash donations are currently going a lot further, Servos said. The food pantry can buy a lot more than the average shopper, so even small donations help.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s $5, $10. A five-dollar bill is $20 of groceries in our hands because of our buying power, the amount we’re buying and the private partnerships that we’ve come up with in order to normally do what we do,” Servos said.

Monetary donations are far less labor intensive than sorting and quarantining donated food, she noted, and those gifts also will come in handy in the months to come.

“Once the pandemic unemployment goes away and there’s no more stimulus money, we are anticipating seeing a higher volume of families in need,” she said. “We’re anticipating and preparing for that.”

Prodisee Pantry isn’t alone. Food banks of all sizes are operating under a new set of guidelines that often include social distancing, masks, lots of hand sanitizer and moving their operations outside.

For Janice Scheitlin, Baptist Service Center director for Calhoun Baptist Association, adjusting to a “no touch policy” with clients and “curbside service” hasn’t been easy — even though they’ve tried to make it more convenient for those they help.

“They just pop their trunk, and the people that bring the food will set it in their trunk and they drive off,” Scheitlin said.

While keeping a six-to-10-feet distance can be challenging, it’s allowed the service centers to help more people.

“We’ve had some that would call and say, ‘I need food, but I’m scared to come out there.’ And I said don’t worry about that because you’re not going to get out of your vehicle, and we’re not going to touch you or your ID or anything. So that made others, especially the older people, feel at ease.”

The ministry also has had to shift away, for now, from offering clothes.

“Right now, we’re not doing any clothing,” she said. “Because people would have to come in, look at sizes and all that kind of thing, so we’re not offering any clothing at this time. We’re hoping all of this will be relaxed or released before winter.”

Donations are down

Most food banks, she noted, naturally haven’t been receiving the donations they normally receive since the coronavirus response first began.

“The U.S. Postal Service always does a big [Stamp out Hunger] food drive, … [and] it may not even happen this year,” she said. “A lot of agencies receive donations like that. … Those kinds of things are a blessing to us when we receive them. This year, we’re not receiving that.”

Still, optimism remains.

For the Polaski campus of Whitesburg Baptist Church in Huntsville, the traffic for their benevolence ministry has been picking up since they’ve returned to full staff. And the sandwich board sign advertising free food hasn’t hurt.

“It’s really big, and I put it outside, then we started getting a lot of people swinging in here when they saw what we were and what we had,” said Tom Williams, who oversees the ministry.

The real reward for Williams has been those who have made professions of faith in Christ through the ministry.

“We’ve had two this month,” said Williams, noting his desire to impact younger generations. “The younger people have a lot of fear. … They’re scared of the future. They haven’t lived long enough. I’m 77, and I’ve lived through a bunch of stuff. I was in Vietnam, … raised four kids, financial crisis, stock market crash, 9/11. I know the Lord is in charge, but these young people, they do have a lot of fear and uncertainty.”

‘Pray for us’

“If I remain optimistic [in] the Lord,” he said. “I think it is a good example for other people. Because your attitude is everything.”

Servos hopes people will continue to pray for these ministries in the months to come.

“We always tell people the first thing is to pray for us,” she said. “The amazing things we have seen have come from the power of prayer.”

She acknowledged she misses her “family” of older volunteers who have decided to stay home and quarantine since March.

“I’m heartbroken for the volunteers we can’t have here right now,” she said. “They are all part of my extended family. It’s hard when I can’t say, ‘Well, come on in. Come have a cup of coffee. Come on in and help me sort and do this paperwork and let’s chat.’ … [But] we want them to be here next year when we need them again.”