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Area food pantries adjust as COVID-19 hits

Area food pantries adjust as COVID-19 hits

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As food banks across the country brace for a surge in demand, while thousands indefinitely lose their jobs in the face of mandated closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, area pantries are adjusting to ensure everyone gets needed food.

For the Portage Food Pantry, that means a makeshift conveyor belt to hand off boxes of pre-assembled food. Sue and Charles Bradley stood at the opening of the building at 405 East Howard Street in Lincoln Park, encouraging people to back their vehicles up so the heavy boxes could be more easily transported.

The extra work of packing boxes and bags with frozen and shelf-stable items has called for extra work from volunteers already looking for more help.

“We need volunteers just to deal with the food,” Charles Bradley said. “It’s getting to be time-consuming for people to come in here and bag up everything.”

At the Baraboo Food Pantry, volunteers placed the boxes directly in the visitors’ cars Saturday to remove the chance of contact among people. Board members Jim Cotter and Janet Konen said they are lucky to have a strong volunteer group, and Konen said it has “been going very smoothly” so far.

Board President Dennis Lindsey said they have a strong volunteer group in Baraboo because there are good faith leaders who are willing to commit themselves to service.

Six of their usual volunteers have decided not to volunteer because they have concerns for their health, but they have dozens more, he said.

Their focus has been centered more on ensuring everyone knows what the organization has had to do to adjust.

Beginning Monday, they shifted their hours, Cotter said. While the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store where the pantry provides the food is now closed, the parking lot will be open during its new hours.

The new open hours, from 9 a.m. to noon each Monday and Thursday, will operate the same as the pantry did Saturday. Repeat visitors will show their proof of address from their vehicle; new users must provide photo identification for all family members and a piece of mail with their current address. They serve all residents within the Baraboo School District. Volunteers will then load the food into their car.

“The downside is that we used to be able to give people a lot of choice,” Cotter said. “Now we can’t.”

The Portage pantry has the same limitation now in an effort to combat the spreading illness.

The boxes are packed with a variety of essentials, like canned meat, frozen meat, vegetables, fruit, chicken, frozen eggs, nuts and other things. They even had a container of laundry detergent, a bar of soap and a roll of toilet paper — which has been missing from store shelves in the last week as people stockpile out of concern for running out.

“We had to go to Walmart and kind of, fight for it,” Sue Bradley said.

Portage volunteer Judy Keppert said the adjustments are necessary, but have created extra work. It would be “nice to beef up” their volunteer numbers, she said, especially because the majority of their current volunteers are over 60. Officials have identified those of that age and people with compromised immune systems as particularly at risk for death if they fall ill with coronavirus.

If the number of people in need grows as mandated closures continue, they could definitely see an influx of users, Keppert said.

“I think, even if people get checks, those checks aren’t going to come tomorrow,” Keppert said. “If you haven’t worked for a couple of days, or maybe a week; some people can only do their groceries after they get their paycheck.”

The Portage Food Pantry is maintaining its current hours, even as it changes its mode of operation. The facility is open from 11 a.m. to noon on Mondays and Wednesday and 5 to 6 p.m. Thursday. Everyone with an address within the Portage Community School District can use the pantry.

Both pantries are no longer taking food donations from the public, but can still take monetary donations, per regulations by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Baraboo food boxes include things like an assortment of frozen meat, peanut butter, jelly, cereal, vegetables, fruit, pasta, cheese, eggs and milk. People can visit the pantry once a month, Konen said. They are limiting volunteers to 10 or less at a time, she said.

Neither Cotter nor Konen could say whether the food pantry will see more people picking up food as the coronavirus spreads among the public.

“We’ve got the food,” Cotter said. “We hope people take advantage of it.”

Konen said they plan to be prepared if more people come forward as jobs are lost to closures mandated in the face of the pandemic, leaving many without a paycheck. Konen said they haven’t had problems finding help. Her impression of the community has shown her people will come forward as they see others in need.

“We’re very fortunate,” she said. “We have a lot of people who want to come in and we actually have to kind of limit how many can come in, which is a really nice problem to have. Everybody wants to help.”

Follow Bridget on Twitter @cookebridget or contact her at 608-745-3513.

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