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The Haymarket Regional Food Pantry has provided free food to residents since 2005. 

Instead of food, for the first time, the nonprofit started providing financial assistance through gift cards this week for anyone who is hungry. People do not have to qualify, but they can receive assistance once every two weeks, said Eileen Smith, the nonprofit's executive director.

“We’ve had a lot of new people, because people lost jobs,” she told InsideNoVa on Tuesday. 

The nonprofit is paying Great Harvest Bakery in Warrenton to provide loaves of bread, in addition to financial assistance during this time, Smith said. 

Local food banks help people in crisis year-round, and the coronavirus pandemic has made their role even more important as paychecks stop and social distancing presents new challenges for shopping.

But some food pantries are encountering unprecedented challenges of their own, with food processing and distribution difficult as volunteers are forced to stay home.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Haymarket nonprofit would help about 48 families every Tuesday. In the first week of the pandemic’s impact, it assisted 136 families. 

“So we almost tripled in one opening,” Smith said. “We are even more critical now. What’s been really heartwarming to me is our donations have never been this high. The community has really rallied around us.” 

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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the pantry saw a sharp decline in its volunteers, many of whom are 65 years and older.  It had to close temporarily earlier this month because it couldn't maintain the usual number of volunteers while staying at least 6 feet apart as recommended by public health officials. 

Each week, the number of volunteers decreased by about 50% until there were only 20 remaining.

“Many of them are very sad and torn that they are not coming,” Smith said. “I completely understand.”

With the new plan to provide financial assistance, which started Tuesday, Smith said the pantry only needs about six volunteers. 

Smith has told vendors the nonprofit still wants to continue its mission. But right now, “it’s about keeping volunteers and  [food pantry] clients safe.” 

Last year, when the federal government was partly shut down, the nonprofit set up a pop-up grocery store for affected workers, Smith said. They planned the idea in a week and spent $20,000 on food and household items. 

“That taught us to be nimble and think outside of the box,” she said. “It helped us. It’s really forcing us to think of new and creative ways to meet the need of our customers.”

The pantry is accepting donated face masks. Drop them into the bin outside the nonprofit at 6611 Jefferson St. in Haymarket. Financial donations can be made online at haymarketfoodpantry.org.

“Keep the money coming, because we’ve never seen the need we've seen in the last few weeks,” she said. 

Smith said one resident told her he was a cybersecurity analyst who recently lost his job, and this was his first visit to the food pantry. 

“We’re seeing people we’ve never ever seen before and it takes a lot of guts and courage to come to the food pantry,” she said. “We said, ‘We’re glad you’re here.’”

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