Local food banks help people in crisis year-round, and the coronavirus pandemic has made their role even more important.

But some food pantries are finding unprecedented challenges as they try to respond to the coronavirus, with food processing and distribution difficult in the face of new guidelines on social distancing. They’re also struggling to find volunteers who can leave home and offer the assistance necessary to stay open.

Haymarket Regional Food Pantry was closed last week due to the struggle in processing and distributing food while adhering to the new social distancing guidelines and fully staffing an operation that relies heavily on dozens of volunteers.

This week, they'll be open on a limited basis to provide grocery assistance to clients, according to an online statement.

The volunteer-run organization has 125 pitching in on-site each week. The pantry’s stock and food distribution rooms are about 1,800 square feet combined. 

The nonprofit saw a decrease in volunteers who were able to stop by. Each week, the number of volunteers decreased by about 50% until there were only 20 volunteers, according to a statement last week explaining the closure. Volunteers complete tasks such as receiving, inspecting, sorting, shelving food items, picking up food from sites and distributing food to clients. 

In 2019, the food pantry helped 4,627 households that included 19,046 people, according to the pantry’s website. 

‘We just keep going’

The Dumfries-based nonprofit Action In Community Through Service (ACTS) is working with the county to help meet hunger needs.

ACTS is part of the new Community Feeding Taskforce to support 40 food distribution partners in Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park, according to ACTS. 

Philip Edney runs the nonprofit’s Hunger Prevention Center. He said they made home food deliveries in February to 62 people who are either elderly or disabled. In March, that number climbed to 84 and so far in April, Edney said they provide deliveries to 90 people. 

“Someone just called to ask for home delivery, because she’s disabled,” Edney said.  

He’ll add her to the list, he said.  “We just keep going.” 

Donations have been helping meet the need. On Monday, they welcomed 1,500 pounds of food from two churches and 400 pounds of food from the Town of Occoquan. 

“That was like, ‘Wow,’” Edney said. “That was great.” 

ACTS' Hunger Prevention Center provides food, such as meat, deli meat, pastries, fresh produce, and more. 

The center has expanded its hours to 9-11:30 a.m. to 12:30-3 p.m. Monday through Friday. 

Before the pandemic, the center had about 45 regular volunteers, Edney said. But since public health officials have recommended social distancing, the Hunger Prevention Center has seen a decline in volunteers, including many who are 65 years old or older and at a greater risk of facing complications if they contract the virus. 

“That wiped out my force of volunteers,” Edney said. “The majority of them are that age.” 

Edney said ACTS’ staff have pitched in to help as the number of volunteers has declined. He said they are able to maintain social distancing, because the distribution center has enough space and only requires five people or so at a time to grab food to fill orders, he said. 

Edney’s food distribution process has changed, he said. Now, the center asks people who are picking up food to either stay in their car or they can load the groceries by themselves so ACTS staff or volunteers can maintain social distancing. 

Edney said the center does not currently need volunteers. But they are accepting food donations and financial donations, either cash or checks made out to the ACTS’ Hunger Prevention Center. 

In addition to food, Edney said he’s bought toilet paper, laundry detergent and soap to distribute.

“People say, ‘Oh my gosh, you actually have that,’” Edney said.

The Salvation Army in Prince William County is holding a no-contact food drive Monday, April 20. The organization said, “Due to COVID-19, many families are needing food which has left our food pantry very low.” They are asking people to drop off dry goods, frozen meats and personal hygiene items 1-4 p.m. Monday, April 20 at 1483 Old Bridge Rd. Suite 102 in Woodbridge. 

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