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Coronavirus Will Make It Harder To Feed Vulnerable Kansas City Families

Courtesy Harvesters
Harvesters relies on volunteers to sort donations. If they can't come in because of coronavirus concerns, that work will have to shift to employees.

Anticipating that coronavirus quarantines will strain the social safety net, Kansas City food pantries, soup kitchens and schools are coming up with contingency plans.

Harvesters is the region’s largest food bank, distributing food in 26 counties with the help of 760 social service agencies. Chief Resource Officer Joanna Sebelien said staff might have to jump in if “that network becomes compromised, if their volunteers are quarantining, if our volunteers who help us sort the food can’t come in.”

“We also know that there may not just be the people we serve on a weekly basis, but more people coming to the pantries who need assistance,” she added.

That’s because many low-wage employees won’t be able to work remotely during quarantines that could last for weeks or they won’t have access to child care if schools extend spring breaks or decide to close. 

Kelly Wachel, spokeswoman for the Kansas City Public Schools, said feeding kids will be a top priority if students can’t return to school after spring break.

“As of now, we are prepping for food distribution centers in our schools and/or food delivery service by bus routes,” Wachel wrote in an email. “We’ve partnered with some churches and faith-based organizations too — to have them on standby for assistance.”

This week, tens of thousands of students who get “BackSnack” nonperishable packages from Harvesters every weekend received extra food for spring break.

Wachel said KCPS hopes to have a plan in place by the middle of next week. Students aren’t due back until March 24.

Meanwhile, Sebelien said, everyone who works with food-insecure populations is waiting to see whether Congress will boost funding for federal food aid as coronavirus spreads. She said Harvesters, which typically relies on donations, will likely have to buy food at some point during the pandemic to keep their shelves stocked. 

Harvesters’ warehouse in Kansas City, Missouri, holds about 4 million pounds — about a three-week supply. Sebelien also said Harvesters is anticipating a drop in donations as people stock their own pantries first. 

For now, many community kitchens are still serving meals, though they’ve had to implement preventive measures like more frequent cleaning and hand washing.

Kansas City-area nonprofits that deliver safety-net programs are taking precautions to limit the virus’ spread, too.  

“Any illness is going to be a concern, whether it's flu, cold or what have you,” said Christina Esteban of Nourish KC. “So we're just really trying to address all of that and be mindful of the greater good.”

Esteban said the plan is to stay open as long as possible, though it’s trying to figure out how to meet increased demand for its meal-delivery service. 

Harvesters is also preparing to shift some operations to their mobile pantries.

“It’s our objective to make sure as long as we can, we can get food to people who need it. If people feel embarrassed that they might need food, if food would help them leverage what other resources they have, it’s OK, we can help them,” Sebelien said.

KCUR news intern Jody Fortino contributed to this report.

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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