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Months after shutdown due to coronavirus, food pantries find a new normal as they feed hungry in MetroWest and Milford area

By Alison Bosma | Wicked Local
 
“We’re unsure what’s going to happen at the end of the month, when that extra money runs out,” Franklin Food Pantry’s Lynn Calling said, of federal benefits set to expire at the end of July. “That’s something a lot of pantries are talking about. .... We don’t know what it will look like. This is nothing we can plan for.”
 
Closing in on four months into statewide shutdowns driven by the global pandemic, the region’s food pantries are settling into a “new normal” of more clients, longer hours, and fewer volunteers.
 
“I hate to use that term (but) I think really it’s the only expression that’s accurate,” United Way of Tri-County President and CEO Paul Mina said. “I think during this time frame, people have come to trust that we’re going to be there when we say we’re going to be there, and there’s going to be food.”
 
The United Way of Tri-County oversees three pantries – Pearl Street Community Cupboard and Café in Framingham, Marlborough Community Cupboard, and WHEAT Community Cupboard and Café in Clinton.
 

Though the number of clients is down slightly since early spring, when COVID-19-related closures began, the three pantries are still seeing about 20% more than pre-pandemic levels. The organization is bringing in 200,000 additional pounds of food each month to meet that need.
 
Franklin Food Pantry Executive Director Lynn Calling said her pantry usually takes on about nine new clients a month, pre-pandemic, but saw 113 new people between March 18 and June 30.
 
“That’s a lot,” Calling said. “That’s much, much more than we had previously.”
 
To accommodate, pantries have since increased or shifted their hours.
 
Franklin Food Pantry began offering evening pickups this month, and is allowing weekly, rather than its usual monthly pickups. Pearl Street Cupboard & Café in Framingham now offers hot meals seven days a week, thanks to a donation from the city’s Lutheran Church, and stays open about a half-hour after regular closing hours to serve those still waiting in line.
 
Families relying on Milford’s Salvation Army for food are making pickups more often – every week instead of once between paychecks. The Salvation Army is also getting out to people with a mobile pantry.
 

“What we are seeing is that there are more families in need because of job losses,” Captain Marsha Barter of the Milford Salvation Army wrote in an email, calling the numbers “record.” “We are also seeing the needs (of) the families are bigger than before.”
 
Though Franklin Food Pantry also saw a spike in clients, and continued need this spring and summer, Calling said her total household count is down from last year, with 309 households in June 2019, but 257 in June 2020.
 
That could, in part, be due to federal benefits, that expired last week. Food pantry directors are watching with apprehension as that deadline creeps closer, Calling said.
 
“We’re unsure what’s going to happen at the end of the month, when that extra money runs out,” she said. “That’s something a lot of pantries are talking about. ... We don’t know what it will look like. This is nothing we can plan for.”
 
Less people helping
 
“Our neighbors missed their volunteers, the volunteers missed our neighbors,” Calling said. “It’s really nice to see people reconnecting.”
 
Supply is, so far, keeping up with the increased demand, directors said. From Greater Boston Food Bank deliveries to local donations, pantries are able to provide a healthy variety of food with consistency.
 
A virtual Party for the Pantry raised about $6,000 this month, Calling said, and harvesting of fresh produce has begun on donated plots in the town’s Community Garden.
 
“Financial support from the community has been tremendous,” she said. “If we put a call out to the community they have responded immediately.”
 
The need is still there, however.
 
Money is always the best type of donation, directors said. For product donations, directors strongly encourage people to check pantry websites, which are regularly updated with specific needs.
 
“Financial support goes the furthest because it will allow us to purchase whatever we need at any point,” Calling said.
 
With an eye to the future, Milford’s Barter pointed out that the increased need over the spring and summer is unlikely to end soon, and expects more donations will be needed for the organization’s usual school and holiday drives.
 
Alison Bosma can be reached at 508-634-7582 or abosma@wickedlocal.com. Find her on Twitter at @AlisonBosma.
All photos by Art Illman