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Kansas City Food Pantries See Record-Breaking Need For Upcoming Holiday Season

Harvesters has distributed about 50 million pounds of food since March, which is 11 million pounds more than that same time period last year.
Harvesters has distributed about 50 million pounds of food since March, which is 11 million pounds more than that same time last year.

Local food bank Harvesters donated nearly 7 million pounds of food in the month of October — the most in its 40 year history.

Food banks, pantries and kitchens across Kansas City are gearing up for a very different holiday season this year as coronavirus cases continue to rise across the metro.

Harvesters is the region’s largest food bank, distributing food in 26 counties with the help of 760 social service agencies. The organization's spokeswoman, Sarah Biles, says winter is usually the busiest time of the year.

“We have a lot of people out in the community that think about the hungry this time of year, and so they're wanting to give us food donations and come in and volunteer,” said Biles. “Now, because of COVID-19, that engagement from the community has been significantly impacted.”

Biles says their holiday volunteer shifts are usually full, but this year they are limiting the number of people in each shift to adhere to the social-distancing guidelines. This has cut their usual 6,000 volunteers a month by more than half, which means it hasn’t been easy for the organization to keep up with what has been a record number of Kansas Citians experiencing food insecurity.

“The number of people needing food assistance since March has continued to remain very high since spring. We've seen on average about a 40% increase in the number of people needing food assistance from our network of pantries and kitchens,” said Biles.

This increase is not exclusive to Harvesters. Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City says it's gone from serving 400 families a month to 900 since March.

Even though more people are back to work since the shutdown ended, JFS Food Pantry Director Jo Hickey says many people are still struggling to put food on the table.

“It's hard to choose between putting gas in your car, paying your rent and getting medications that your family needs. If we can be there to meet that need, then that's maybe a hundred dollars that they can forward onto another expense rather than food,” said Hickey.

To keep up with the increasing demand, Hickey says they’ve had to make some changes to how they distribute their food. Before, clients were able to visit the pantry that was set up like a grocery store.

Now, clients must select what food they need ahead of time and come pick it up. Hickey says the pantry has been working hard to make the option to choose available, especially during the holidays.

“Each family could come in and shop for the items that they would use for their traditional holiday meal. We know the holidays look different for each family so that's been one of our challenges that we haven't been able to provide as much customized service as we would like,” said Hickey.

Another change for the organization has been its number of volunteers. While they need more workers to keep up with the workload, Hickey says they keeping that number low for safety concerns.

As coronavirus cases continue to rise in the area, managing with fewer volunteers has also been a problem for community kitchen NourishKC. They now rely on six volunteers to provide 500 meals a day.

“Volunteers really enjoyed getting to know their community better and being able to help others on a regular daily basis or weekly, that true commitment to being involved was more than we could ever ask for. Now we have growing needs, but with less individuals to safely be in the dining hall,” said Christina Esteban of NourishKC.

She says the kitchen has only been able to keep up with its demands because of the ongoing support of donors, volunteers and even restaurants that have offered them their surplus goods.

Hickey says the JFS pantry has also been staying afloat because of the community’s support.

“Each time we think we're down to the bare minimum and don't have enough to get through the week, we wind up with a donor that comes through to purchase those items for us or to do a food drive and we scrape by,” said Hickey.

On the other hand, Harvesters says the main way they’ve been able to keep up and supply these pantries is through federal aid like the Coronavirus Food Assistance program.

With this program and many other forms of aid slated to end at the end of December, Biles says she’s concerned with the food bank’s ability to provide for the community in the long term.

“Come January, we're looking at the gap of about 1.5 million pounds of food a month that we're going to need to fill that we won't have because of those programs,” said Biles.

Biles says with possibly another lockdown approaching, it’s imperative the bank find a way to fill this gap. She says the safest and easiest way for those who want to support local food pantries is through financial contributions or volunteering their time if they feel comfortable doing so.

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