Dietician Laura Sahd wears a mask at the Lancaster County Food Hub. Sahd, of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, is community dietician for Food Farmacy, a nutrition counseling pilot program for at-risk individuals. (Photo provided by Lancaster County Food Hub)
Dietician Laura Sahd wears a mask at the Lancaster County Food Hub. Sahd, of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, is community dietician for Food Farmacy, a nutrition counseling pilot program for at-risk individuals. (Photo provided by Lancaster County Food Hub)

Lancaster County food pantries and food banks say they're seeing a lot of new faces these days, as economic upheaval stemming from the coronavirus pandemic worsens.

Organizers say they've been able to meet the need, but they worry about what the future will hold if the downturn can't be reversed soon.

Many business have had to suspend operation, leading to tens of thousands of layoffs in Lancaster County. Nationwide, 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment in just the past four weeks.

Community member Christy Fieldsa displays a sign during a recent "Food Friday" at The Factory Ministries. (Photo provided by The Factory Ministries)
Community member Christy Fieldsa displays a sign during a recent "Food Friday" at The Factory Ministries. (Photo provided by The Factory Ministries)

Participation up 3x

“Our numbers skyrocketed in a hurry,” said Adam Nagle, executive director of The Factory Ministries, told LNP newspaper this week.

In the first two weeks of the pandemic, the ministry, based in Paradise at 3293 Lincoln Highway East, distributed food to 770 people, Nagle told OneUnitedLancaster: "That tripled from our normal two-week span."

The Lancaster County Food Hub is the county's largest provider of free food to the needy. It continues to operate four days a week at 812 N. Queen St. in Lancaster.

The site recently saw 20 new visitors in one day alone, executive director Gail Rittenhouse said.

Volunteers wear matching face masks as they prepare a meal for the Anchorage breakfast program. (Photo provided by Anchorage)
Volunteers wear matching face masks as they prepare a meal for the Anchorage breakfast program. (Photo provided by Anchorage)

'Heartbreaking'

Like their counterparts nationwide, local food nonprofits have retooled their procedures to guard against spreading Covid-19. Social distance is being maintained, meals are being pre-packed, staff and volunteers are wearing protective gear.

Before coronavirus, the Anchorage daily free breakfast at First United Methodist Church at 29 E. Walnut St. in Lancaster was a sit-down buffet at which participants could socialize freely. Now, bagged breakfasts must be doled out one by one.

The change is "heartbreaking," executive director Patty Eastep said.

New participants notwithstanding, daily attendance has dropped a bit, she said. Some people are probably staying home, while others may be going to other meals organized in the community since the pandemic began. Anchorage continues to offer showers, but has cut them from two days a week to one.

Due to Covid-19, the nonprofit was obliged to cancel three fundraisers, which were expected to bring in nearly half its annual budget. LNP's press coverage of the situation resulted in donors coming forward, Eastep said, and their timely help has offset some of the shortfall, but not all of it.

Many nonprofits have discontinued or are discouraging food donations from households and individuals. The Factory Ministries is an exception: It is hosting weekly food drives from 9 a.m. to noon "Food Fridays." The community has responded in a big way, Nagle said. The logistics have been designed for safety, he noted: People drive up, open their vehicles' trunk, and volunteers wearing masks and gloves unpack the donations.

What's next?

Rittenhouse, Eastep and Nagle all said they're concerned about what's in store in coming weeks and months.

Will there be a wave of evictions once the moratorium is lifted, leading to a surge in homelessness? Will donations drop off, either due to "donor fatigue" or because would-be donors experience their own financial distress?

"This could be the calm before the real storm begins," Rittenhouse said.

How you can help

If you are able, consider making a financial donation to a local food nonprofit (listings here and here) or to the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, which distributes food to numerous organizations in Lancaster County and 26 other counties.

Please also consider a donation to Lancaster Cares, a Covid-19 emergency fund set up by Lancaster County Community Foundation and the Lancaster County United Way.

Tim Stuhldreher